Also known as the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA), the Cancun Underwater Museum is one of Mexico's most unusual and spectacular attractions. What started out as a small (and possibly slightly bonkers) artistic endeavour has now become an important ecological installation, highlighting the threat posed to natural reefs across the world. Visiting the museum isn't for everyone, and it does help if you've dived (or at least snorkelled) before. However, for seasoned divers and those with a little training under their belts, it's an exciting and rewarding way to explore the marine life that's made its home on this beautiful country's coast.
The inspiration behind the museumThe beginnings of the museum can be traced back to Jaime Gonzalez Canto. His idea was to create a piece of underwater art that over time would transform into a coral reef. At roughly the same time, the Director of the National Park Costa Occidental Isla Mujeres, Dr Jamie Gonzales Miki, became aware that the Manchones Reef was suffering at the hands of overenthusiastic scuba-divers and snorkellers. Hearing about the art project, he took the idea to Roberto Diaz Abraham, the President of the Cancun Nautical Association. Between them, they arrived at the conclusion that by putting the installation further out at sea it would attract divers away from the already-damaged Manchones Reef, and allow this natural wonder to regenerate. After three years of trying to get the project off the ground, Abraham withdrew from it, believing that coral would take too long to grow and not offer much in the way of protection to the Manchones Reef. Canto, however, decided to undertake more research and crossed paths with underwater artist, Jason deCaires Taylor. A scuba instructor as well as a talented artist, Taylor had already been involved with underwater art installations and was able to provide solid evidence that one situated off the coast would offer significant environmental benefits.
Locally-sourced statuesTaylor used the local fishing community as the springboard for his inspiration and began using the inhabitants to help him with his work. Volunteers were covered in specialist marine cement, and their likenesses were then cast in marine concrete from the resulting moulds. All the materials used were chosen specifically for their PH-neutral properties, and the fact that algae and coral would grow freely all over them. The statues were then weighted and carefully placed in chosen sites just off the coast of Cancun. However, there's much more to the Cancun Underwater Museum than just a collection of statues that look like some of the locals. Taylor used the installation for social commentaries, which are fascinating for anyone taking the dive to go and see it. In the clear, sapphire waters, you can see a little girl with her head tilted towards the surface and a small smile on her face. Nearby, there are six bankers with their heads in the sea-bed, unable to see any of the beauty that surrounds them. You'll even find a few famous faces in the undersea assembly. Look out for TV personalities, models and politicians. In addition, the most recent piece to have joined the collection is a life-size, concrete Volkswagen Beetle. There are almost 500 statues in the Cancun Underwater Museum, so you can easily spend an entire dive down there and still have to come back again and again to see more of the installation.
How to visit the museumThere are scuba diving and snorkelling tours operated from Fashion Harbour. While snorkelling is popular, scuba diving is the best way to get up close and personal with the underwater inhabitants. If you're not an experienced diver, there are various PADI-approved diving schools in the area where you can train. Alternatively, if you'd rather stay dry, you can hop aboard a cruise on a glass-bottomed boat and see the sculptures from above. Tours are available from early in the morning until the late afternoon. However you choose to visit them, be sure to take your camera and snap some photos as a memento of the most unique attraction you'll see on your Mexico holiday. The beauty of the Cancun Underwater Museum is that no two visits are the same. As time passes, more and more coral grows over the stone figures which is attracting a greater quantity and diversity of marine life. Expect to see the likes of bright Angelfish, stunning starfish, placid nurse sharks, graceful manta rays and serene sea turtles all swimming through the exhibits. As the coral grows, the features of the statues change and it is hoped that, over the years, they will become joined together to become one indistinct reef. The highlight of anyone's holiday to Mexico, this serves as an effective reminder that we must do all we can to preserve these fragile and beautiful ecosystems.