Dispatch, Cancun: The Underwater Museum

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Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann was in Cancun for the Mexico Tourism Board's Travel Industry Summit. Arnie's first dispatch follows. Click to read his second dispatch.

I had read about the opening of Cancun’s Underwater Museum in December, but only recently saw video of its features on a Mexico Tourist Board television commercial promoting Cancun: A swiftly moving underwater camera swept above a submerged field of human statues.

The image lasted only a few seconds, but its dreamlike quality made an impression.

I was in Cancun for the Mexico Tourism Board’s Travel Industry Summit this past week, and asked the concierge at Le Blanc Spa & Resort, where I was staying, for more information about the museum.

He told me it was located in an oceanic nature preserve near Isla Mujeres, about a 30-minute boat ride away.

The hotel coordinated with the Cancun Tourist Board to make arrangements for me to see it.

Joining me on the journey out to the statues were the museum’s co-founder and director, Roberto Diaz; Erika Mitzunaga of the Cancun Tourist Board; Heidi Podjavorsek of Signature Travel Network; and Kris Joltki, an industry consultant.

On the way out, Diaz told me the story behind the museum. He is also the general manager of AquaWorld, a large commercial water-activity center on the lagoon side of Cancun.

Three years ago, he learned that one of the reefs where his company ran snorkeling excursions was going to be closed to allow the coral to rejuvenate. That presented a problem for him; the remaining reefs were already at visitor capacity, and he was going to lose a significant amount of business.

He learned about some "reef balls" that had been dropped into waters to attract fish, but when he checked them out, he felt they wouldn’t provide a satisfactory experience.

But he also recalled that he had read about a British sculptor, Jason deCaires Taylor, who had created statues that were being lowered beneath the waves off Grenada.

He contacted the artist, and Taylor said that if Diaz could put up a $20,000 deposit for materials, he would come to Cancun and begin working on a similar project.

Diaz, who is himself a sculptor, raised the money, and Taylor went to work. It turned out to be more time-consuming than either had imagined: It took a year to create just three statues. (Taylor creates molds of actual human bodies and faces, and works in concrete.)

In the meantime, Diaz, working with other businesses in Cancun, had secured a pledge of $200,000 from the mayor of Cancun to create many more statues. The money never materialized, but other funding was secured and Taylor continued to work, eventually finding a much more efficient method for creating the statues. (He also hired two Mexican artists to help him.)

He has now placed 400 statues in three underwater locales. The first statues were submerged in November 2009, and the museum officially opened a year later.

There are plans for 11 installations, but Diaz believes this is only the beginning. To live up to the name Underwater Museum, he has commissioned four other artists — one American and three Mexicans — to create additional works, and hopes to add more art each year.

These are "permanent" exhibits, but that does not mean they’re unchanging. Although the statues are constructed to withstand hurricanes, they will undergo, to quote Shakespeare, "a sea-change into something rich and strange."

Diaz, who visits the site frequently, said changes occur rapidly — "day to day" — and he’s never quite sure what to expect.

We first snorkeled over an installation called "The Silent Evolution." The water was about 20 feet deep, and local regulations require snorkelers to wear flotation vests, which meant we couldn’t dive down for a closer look.

On the day we visited, the Silent Evolution was disappointing. The statues were covered in green algae and seaweed, and looked like a young, green forest of tall, narrow shrubs, with only an occasional raised arm or tilted head suggesting human form. Conceptually, I was into it, but viscerally, it felt muted.

Based on the experience I had, I would only recommend the Silent Evolution for divers. Even if, as Diaz asserted, the algae and seaweed were just the conditions of that day, the statues’ distance from the surface makes it difficult for snorkelers to fully appreciate them, whatever their current state.

I was told that there was another large installation in shallower water, but, unfortunately, it was too far away to see in the time we had available.

Volkswagen statue

We did, however, view a second installation that was more satisfying. A 4-ton concrete replica of a Volkswagen Beetle with a young girl curled up on the hood (or, since it was an old-style Beetle, the trunk) had also been submerged.

It was designed to be home to local crustaceans as well, and openings for lobsters and crabs were visible on its sides.

Diaz had told me about the difficulties installing this particular sculpture. It was too heavy for the boat-mounted crane that they had used for the other statues, so they floated it with giant inflatable bladders and towed it to the location, deflating the balloons slowly as it was moved into position.

I expect I will continue to make trips out to see additional installations on future visits to Cancun. Among the items currently commissioned are a giant, standing picture frame so divers can pose within the rectangle, and another which will lay flat in shallower water so snorkelers can lie down within it.

A kinetic statue of an angel whose wings will flap in the currents is also in the works, and there’s even an installation planned that will incorporate electricity.

While I was disappointed that most of the forms I saw were obscured by plant life, I’m nonetheless fascinated that the installations are intended to be changed by nature.

Cancun is often characterized as being too artificial, so it was especially satisfying to see a tourism initiative that reflects a somewhat unpredictable, artistic temperament.

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