You'll find these split faces in France. | Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor
You'll find these split faces in France. | Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor

Why The Next Museum You Visit Should Be Underwater

These breathtaking sculptures also benefit the environment.

The 2,500 year-old Peristera shipwreck sits about 98 feet underwater off the Greek island of Alonissos. Felled at the end of the Peloponnesian War, it was once a massive Athenian barge—the largest of its kind ever found—transporting curvy amphoras filled with wine. And starting this June, the archeological site will become a full-fledged underwater museum, where divers can explore the formerly booze-filled pottery and its colorful resident sea sponges, eels, and (possibly drunk) fish. 

In February of this year another underwater attraction opened, this time in glitzy Cannes. Six large, fractured faces constructed of stainless steel and pH neutral cement were submerged in the waters off Sainte-Marguerite. Each six-foot, 10-ton face was inspired by a member of the local community, and at their deepest point, sit just 13 feet below the surface—inviting even casual swimmers to get a good look.

These underwater spaces do far more than entice tourists to shell out for a snorkeling session. When built and placed with intention near overtaxed and dying coral reefs, they provide crucial new habitats for marine life—flourishing, diverse new ecosystems for ecologists to study.

Beyond promoting reef renewal, they are also quite beautiful. The extraordinary, large-scale pieces become otherworldly as critters attach, painting them purple, green, and pink, and morphing them into living sculpture, complete with dramatic undersea lighting. For a scuba diver or snorkeler, the immersive ecosystems are like no other, worth getting wet to view.

Blessings, by Cuban artist Elier Amado Gil, is a good spot in the Yucatan to hang with sea turtles. | Ben Girardi/Aurora Photos/Getty Images

The fractured heads in Cannes are the work of British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, whose projects are usually exquisitely made and high-concept: His first, 2006’s “Lost Correspondent” in the Molinere Beauséjour Marine Protected Area in Grenada, was submerged after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan. It depicts a man sitting at a desk with a typewriter, which he describes as “a reflection of the evolution of human self-expression and communication systems throughout society's development.”  

The Grenada sculpture park is one of National Geographic’s 25 Wonders of the World and includes 75 works, all viewable by snorkel, scuba, and glass-bottomed boat. Underwater explorers can see more of deCaires Taylor’s works scattered in waters around the world: In Nassau, Ocean Atlas is the world’s largest underwater sculpture, a towering young girl rising 16 feet high to just below water level, weighing 40 tons. In the Exumas, The Musician depicts a life-sized mermaid sitting at a Steinway grand piano, which plays soft classical music as divers approach. Other installations include a circle of 48 figures in the waters of Indonesia, called “Nest,” and a massive installation of 200 human figures off Isla Mujeres near Cancun.

Key Largo's Christ of The Abyss welcomes everyone. | Stephen Frink/The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Underwater’s been hopping with statues for quite some time now—at least as early as 1954, when a bronze nine-foot tall statue, Christ of the Abyss, made its home in the Mediterranean waters off of San Fruttuoso, Italy. The likeness of Jesus—arms raised and face upturned to the heavens, perched on a grand spiral—was created by artist Guido Galletti, a well-known reference point for divers. The iconic mold has been copied a few times—one famous replica sits in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park about 25 feet off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. 

Perhaps this underwater Christ served as inspiration for Floridian Evan Snow, the Executive Director of Florida’s 1,000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project. Taking the underwater eco-art game to a new level, the initiative aims to repopulate coral in Florida’s reef system using artificial reefs decorated with mermaid likenesses. 

While they aren't quite at the goal of 1,000 mermaids—yet—there’s currently a viewable cult of personality 80 sculptures strong dotting the waters south of the port of Palm Beach, with 55 sculptures added just last November. 

She looks so relaxed. | Photo by Ron Nash, Courtesy of the 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project

The Florida reef is the only living coral reef in the United States, and the third-largest in the world, hugging 360 miles of coastline and providing homes for 6,000 aquatic species. But thanks to warming oceans it is not only dying, but seems to be vanishing.

To help the cause, the public can donate underwater plaques to the Mermaid Project. But even cooler is that, for $7,500, you can cast yourself in limestone concrete and become an underwater museum piece yourself (you’ll be in good company—there’s a cast down there of an actual “professional” mermaid Emily Alexandra). Your mermaid likeness will be perched on Reef Cell modules, which use eco-friendly materials in reef shapes to encourage corals and other sea creatures to attach themselves. 

Soon there will be a second underwater site in Dania beach, and plans are in the works to collaborate with the famous Weeki Wachee mermaids. And the Mermaid Project’s first site in Palm Beach has already begun to see some growth from sculptures submerged in August 2019. “Coral growth can generally take anywhere from upwards of 80 to 100 years,” says Snow. “And we’re seeing the preliminary steps kind of accelerated with some of the precursors.”

Future mermaid. | Photo courtesy of The 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project

And you can see them too. Local charter Calypso Dive takes groups out on Sundays, and they’re open for private charters on other days. Or you can go on their own—the various coordinates are on the website—but they recommend going with a dive captain. And sorry snorkel stans, it is diving: These sirens are 45 feet down.

And if you one day hope to visit your mermaid-avatar underwater, now you don’t even have to be cast in person. The Mermaid Project has recently begun using virtual reality and 3D scanning technology to create the molds. “We can actually make a cast off of somebody using a photo,” says Snos. “And it’s even better if they were 3D scanned somewhere and we get the file sent to us.” Act now and you can surprise mom with a truly one-of-a-kind gift for Mother’s Day.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. If she ever met a mermaid that looked like her, she would have to destroy it.