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An Artful Dive in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

An Artful Dive in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

by JESSICA WYNNE LOCKHART

Even from a distance, I’m in awe when I see the greenhouse for the first time. Its remote location is 50 miles from all signs of civilization, but it’s brimming with life. In its centre, children gather, holding pots and planters. Full watering cans sit off to the side and chandeliers sway from the ceiling, each with evidence of new growth inside.

As a botanical gardens enthusiast, I can say with confidence that it’s the most extraordinary greenhouse I’ve ever seen. But the colorful blooms? They’re not flowers—they’re coral. The children? They’re concrete statues, guardians over the premises. And the building itself? It doesn’t sit on land, but rather 60 feet under the Australian Coral Sea.

This is Townsville’s new Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA), located on the John Brewer Reef, one of the 3,000 individual reefs that make up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

As a Canadian living in Queensland, I was surprised to learn that so many of my friends and family back home believed the Great Barrier Reef was gone. Back in 2016, a mass bleaching event resulted in headlines declaring it dead. In truth, only about 30 percent of the reef was lost. But subsequent bleaching events – including one this year – have further exposed the reef’s vulnerability to rising global temperatures, ocean acidification, agricultural run-off, and cyclones.

The MOUA is a direct response to this crisis. Created by underwater sculptor and British environmentalist Jason deCaires Taylor, it’s made of low-carbon porous concrete that’s designed to be colonized by coral over time.

I’ve traveled out to the MOUA with local operator Adrenaline Dive and Snorkel. Other than signing up for a tour, there is no cost of admission. This is less of a museum and more of a public art installation (granted, one that requires donning a scuba mask to see). The coral greenhouse’s rooftop and surrounding sculptures are visible to snorkelers, but even those who aren’t PADI-certified can get a more immersive experience with an intro dive.

It takes two hours by boat to reach our destination, where the reef spreads out around us in a turquoise horseshoe. Adrenaline’s owner, Paul Crocombe, gives us a full run-down of the site and he doesn’t gloss over the bleaching that recently happened here. But while the message he delivers is grounded, it’s also one of resilience.

“The reef isn’t going to disappear with climate change—it’s just going to change,” he tells us.

Jumping in, I’m awarded with the most colorful dive site I’ve been to on the Great Barrier Reef, and one entirely different than those off the coast of Cairns and Port Douglas. Shimmering walls of blue fish flash through the water, while towers of coral rise up around me. Soon, the reef—and not the MOUA—becomes the main attraction.

“That’s most peoples’ reactions,” says Simone Sullivan, Townsville Enterprise’s marketing executive when I meet her for dinner that night. “People travel here to see the MOUA, but it’s the reef that ends up sticking with them.”

While long popular with domestic travelers, thanks to nearby holiday destination Magnetic Island, it wasn’t until recently that Townsville began making its way onto international visitors’ itineraries. As a result, the reef’s vibrancy is unknown to many—but soon, the secret will be out. Right now, an $80 million AUD luxury hotel is in development next door to the existing Ville Resort, a hotel with a casino and swim-up bar directly beside the ocean. There are also plans for a second MOUA location, with a snorkeling-friendly site off Magnetic Island in contention.

One steamy afternoon, I duck into the air-conditioned Museum of Tropical Queensland to see eight new MOUA sculptures that have yet to be installed. They tower over me. Each weighs between 2,100 and 6,200 pounds, and each is modeled after an environmentalist. There’s Dr. Richard Braley, a local researcher who dedicated his life to studying giant clams, his body morphed (naturally) with a giant clam. There’s nine-year-old Molly Steer, who encouraged every school in Australia to stop using plastic straws. And there’s Jayme Marshall, a Wulgurukaba and Yunbenen woman who represents the role of traditional owners in protecting the future of the Great Barrier Reef.

Soon, these sentinels will make their way to the depths of the ocean floor, where they’re predicted to live for 100 years. If deCaires Taylor’s message finds the right audience, the Great Barrier Reef will not only be here, it will be a vital part of a thriving planet that was saved in the nick of time. #spreadtheword

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