The spires of Jason deCaires Taylor’s Coral Greenhouse come into view fairly quickly as I descend the clear water of John Brewer Reef. I’ve been hoping to dive the Museum of Underwater Art for months, and when the stars finally align for me, I’m surprised with an even greater experience; an opportunity to participate in coral gardening at the installation.
Diving this work of art is an enigmatic experience, somewhere between diving a wreck and a coral reef. The greenhouse itself would look impressive as a centrepiece in the gardens of a grand old estate or botanic garden. Underwater the structure is enhanced with a slightly ethereal atmosphere, as we float noiselessly through the main entrance, passing several barracuda, batfish and a rather surprised-looking puffer fish. While the barracuda and batfish swim above us, smaller reef fish flit about the hanging planters and amongst the soft corals already growing on nearly every surface.
Surrounding the greenhouse, a landscape of tall tropical looking trees, garden beds and scattered coral bommies, with several ghostly life-size figures standing around the lagoon’s sandy bottom. On closer inspection, I realise all these figures, the Coral Greenhouse’s Reef Guardians, are tending this garden in some way. Some holding planters, some with secateurs looking up at the trees, some with watering cans and some squatting on the sandy floor contemplating a patch of garden.
This beautiful installation, inspired by both reef and rainforest, is the second of a planned four structures to be installed as part of deCaires Taylor’s Museum of Underwater Art. The first, Ocean Siren, is located in shallow water on The Strand in Townsville and is modelled on a local Wulgurukaba Traditional Owner, Takoda Johnson. The Siren illuminates at night glowing different colours indicating live water temperature data from Davies Reef weather station on the Great Barrier Reef, sharing a crystal-clear message (and warning) of the ocean’s rising temperature and the implications that has on the Reef.
The Coral Greenhouse is deCaires Taylor’s first-ever underwater architectural structure, and it was the sculptor’s wish that the installation would offer opportunities for scientists, marine students and tourists to engage in action-based learning and to conduct research on coral reef restoration.
Located approximately 80km from Townsville on John Brewer Reef, around 90 minutes to two hours by boat, the structure is made from stainless steel and PH-neutral materials to complement natural coral growth. It sits at a depth of 16 metres and rises up to 12 metres with three main entrance points. There are 25 sculptures outside the greenhouse and eight human figures, benches and other small sculptures including pots, cups, and a microscope inside.
The conservation program associated with the structure is being managed by Reef Ecologic and I was lucky enough to join scientist Gemma Molinaro to plant the very first coral ‘seedling’ in the Greenhouse, as the structure enters a new phase: coral gardening.
The team at Reef Ecologic will plant coral ‘seedlings’ in the various pots and planters on one side of the Greenhouse, leaving the other side to attract coral growth naturally, so they can monitor the difference, both of coral growth and fish life.
After our initial inspection of the Greenhouse and surrounding garden, Gemma and I swim over to the edge of the lagoon in search of ‘corals of opportunity’, small pieces of coral that have broken off the reef and fallen on the sandy bottom of the lagoon, where without solid footing, they would soon die.
Gemma is in search of a particular type of coral, one that will fit nicely into the chosen plant pot. After scouring the sea floor, we finally find a suitable piece and head back to the greenhouse, where we prepare the surface of the pot with a little scrub and fix the coral seedling in place with some Selleys Knead, a hand kneadable fast setting epoxy putty. I can’t tell you how excited I was to see this little baby coral (which I’m considering my very own charge) in its planter, watched over by its a beautiful Reef Guardian.
Once our little seedling has been planted, we measure it, tag it (No. 1), take a photo – both for research and posterity – and head off to explore the reef wall. The Coral Greenhouse is located near one of the prettiest sections of John Brewer Reef, with a nearby channel, festooned with soft corals, whips and gorgonian fans, leading to the outer wall where we’re greeted by a sloping wall of vibrant coral, teeming with reef fish.
The experience of helping to plant the first coral seedling on the Museum of Underwater Art, indeed, the first coral seeding on any piece of underwater art in Australia, was incredibly special. Equally inspiring is the main objective of this project, a collaboration of art, science and storytelling, to inspire ocean advocacy.
Photo Credit: Gemma Molinaro, Reef Ecologic
Click here for Scuba Diver ANZ issue 33