Managers of a national park in the sea around Cancun realized that traffic was taking its toll on the Manchones Reef. Some 87,000 divers annually swam in the clear, blue waters surrounding the reef. Scuba divers and tour boats battered and frightened the sea turtles, queen angelfish, spotted trunkfish and other reef creatures. After some trial and error, park director Jaime Gonzalez Canto landed on a solution: to redirect tourists to an alternative spectacle. He had British artist Jason deCaires Taylor create underwater sculptures that would perform double duty as an artificial reef. The Subaquatic Museum of Art opened in 2010.

The project got off to a rough start. At first, sea urchins swarmed over fuzzy films of green algae that grew on the figures, prompting tour operators to demand a cleanup. Gonzalez Canto compromised by cleaning half of the sculptures. That yielded a lesson in reef ecology. The sculptures stripped of algae-eating urchins rapidly regrew their vegetal patina (below). In contrast, the untouched sculptures soon blossomed with hard, protective layers of calcium carbonate generated by communities of organisms that slowly grew underneath the algae. The installation gradually became a microcosmic reef.

Today the installation and habitat feature more than 450 deepwater statues made of porous cement initially seeded just with fire coral. A dazzling diversity of corals, sponges and tropical fish is starting to cover the sculptures; as the statues disappear, a full reef is materializing in their place. Researchers at two Mexican universities are studying how the sculptures are transforming over time and the extent to which the museum is drawing tourists away from the troubled nearby reef.

“The challenge is to redirect the divers completely to the sculptures,” Gonzalez Canto says. “If we can find a nice alternative—something that attracts tourists, not just for a day but two or three, maybe we can one day close these resources completely.” The results will help to inform similar efforts around the globe.