In August 1954, a bronze cast of Jesus with outstretched arms was sunk in the cove of San Fruttuoso, a parish in north-west Italy. Evocatively titled Christ Of The Abyss and created by Guido Galletti, it may have been the first instance of an “underwater sculpture". The work was a tribute to the first Italian to wear self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba) gear, the diver Dario Gonzatti, who had died tragically in those very waters a few years previously.

Now, the term “underwater sculpture" is synonymous with one man: 44-year-old British artist James deCaires Taylor. Since 2006, his website says, he has created a number of underwater “museums" and “sculpture parks"—permanent, site-specific installations that collectively hold over 850 life-size public works.

In Grenada’s Molinere Bay, Taylor’s first major project, begun in 2006, is now a sculpture park with 75 pieces. Among them, at a depth of 22ft, divers can approach the eerie Lost Correspondent, a man sitting alone at a table with a typewriter. At about 13ft, they can contemplate the 16 female forms lying flat on the ocean floor. At the Museo Subacuático de Arte (Musa), located in the waters around the Mexican resort town of Cancún, one of the major draws is Anthropocene, a 9-ton cement replica of a Volkswagen Beetle. Taylor’s underwater wonders are not confined to the tropics. In January 2017, the Museo Atlántico opened off the south coast of Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Art for art’s sake? Far from it. Taylor, a former dive instructor, has witnessed the rapid depletion of coral reefs. This is why he spends a lot of time understanding the science to facilitate his art. He uses textured, pH-neutral cement to encourage coral polyp attachment. Projects are located down-current from natural reefs, so there are areas for fish to settle in after spawning. Setting up sculpture sites has the added advantage of reducing tourist footprint around the natural reefs. Stimulating fish aggregation is one of the design objectives—for instance, little holes in the windows of the cement Volkswagen allow marine life the ideal space to breed and live.

The dominant theme of Taylor’s works is transformation—the essence emerges when the ocean begins to colonize the sculptures, which are continually transformed by natural light effects. What may appear as relics of a submerged civilization actually constitute an underwater iconography of an alternative marine conservation model.

Taylor’s latest project is much closer home, and a relatively short flight away. The Coralarium—which opened in July at the Fairmont Sirru Fen Fushi in the Maldives—comprises semi-submerged sculptures on plinths at different heights to transform the viewing experience on the basis of tidal movements. According to a press release, the 120-villa resort offers guided tours of the structure, led by its resident marine biologists.

Scientists have predicted that 90% of the world’s coral reefs will have disappeared by 2050. In a TED talk he delivered on a boat in the Solomon Islands in 2015, Taylor pointed out that it is “really hard" to think of the ocean, “something so plain and so enormous", as fragile. Through his art, he hopes to convey the potential for beauty, light and life in the threatened abyss.

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