A few months ago, I got my dream assignment. Well, okay, it wasn’t really an assignment – I cajoled an editor into letting me write about Cancun’s famous underwater museum, Museo Subacuatico de Arte, or MUSA. The idea isn’t really new – put some stuff underwater that fish like to hide under and watch as fish populations bloom. But Cancun has taken another twist – make the objects themselves so beautiful that people will come to see them even before the fish do.
It was a good story and a fun update on a well-covered topic. But I walked away feeling like something was missing. Today I want to give you the story behind that story. The story of the three dedicated – nay, heroic – people who made the place happen. There was Jaime Gonzalez, a biologist and hard-nosed bureaucrat sickened by the damaged reefs in his country; Roberto Diaz, the entrepreneurial tour operator and closet artist who knows everybody in town; and Jason Taylor, the outsider with a new idea and the talent to pull it off.
Before I go on, let me start by telling you about Cancun. Most Mexican towns are built around a central plaza and have tight communities going back perhaps hundreds of years. Not Cancun. No, Cancun is more of a gold rush town, except instead of gold it’s tourism dollars. The town is not steeped in history but rather sprung up (literally built out of nothing, since much of it is landfill) to serve rich people looking for beach time.
Few Cancuneros have deep roots in the town and business owners feel little loyalty to the community (though their employees do – I attended snorkeling trash clean up that netted several tons). Originally, the town was aimed at luxury vacationers – the hyper rich. But about 20 years ago, it started to cater to the rest of us with all-inclusive packages, cheap jet ski rentals, and surf-and-turf “Pirates of the Caribbean” reenactment tours. The vibe in Cancun today is one where profit margins are low and everyone takes what they can get.
There’s nothing really wrong with this. Everyone deserves a nice beach vacation – not just the rich. But, like any gold rush town, prosperity ebbs and flows. Tourism is great until things like the drug war, swine flu, and global recession deter people from hopping a plane to the Yucatan for spring break. And tourism, while not exactly good for the environment, is far better than a lot of other uses people find for beachfront property. Plus, it gives locals a strong incentive to maintain natural resources.
But for Gonzalez, who directs the national marine park, just off the shore, watching endless streams of tourists slathered in sunscreen (which is perhaps toxic for the reefs) stumble about in the reefs all day, every day, was just too much.
So, he threatened to shut the whole thing down, momentarily throwing all the tour guides into wrathful panic. Normally these kinds of conflicts in Mexico turn into stalemated competitions of wills. But Diaz, who’s a manager at Aqua World and president of the Nautical Association, kept a clear head and decided to work with Gonzalez and not against him. That’s when they discovered Taylor, who had been building sculptures near the reefs of Grenada (to see his work, click here … no really, it’ll blow your mind). They called him up and asked if he might, you know, pick up and move his life to Mexico. Money? Sure, probably. I mean, maybe.
In a previous life, Taylor had been a set designer, dive instructor and even a paparazzi photographer, which as he tells it is a little like being a human juice box for soul-sucking vampires every day. He craved work that had a deeper impact and meaning. So he sold his place, said goodbye to his fiancé, and left for an uncertain future – with no idea if these guys would desert him when the going got tough. “It was hard,” he says, “I was cut adrift.”
Back in Cancun Diaz and Gonzalez were learning there is no idea great enough it that can’t be ruined by the selfish and inept. As director of the national park, Gonzalez was busy getting permissions to drop thousands of pounds of cement on the ocean floor. Meanwhile Diaz was pumping all his contacts to for cash.
Tour operators in Cancun make millions off of the gorgeous ocean (really, the water is unparalleled in its awesomenatude) but are loathe to give back a red cent. Diaz wanted US$200,000 for 200 sculptures. At one point a local politician publicly promised to cover the cost and then promptly got arrested for fraud, leaving them flat (this being the oft-corrupt Yucatan, when I was there the politician was running again for office).
In all, it was a herculean effort. But eventually permissions and a little money came through and so Taylor started working in 2006. He makes the molds using plaster on the naked body and then adds the clothing later. Walking through a new dry-land exhibit of his work, he says he can name each of his models – from the young girl to the pregnant woman to the worker he flagged down in the street who was initially confused about what exactly this odd foreigner wanted to do. Even Diaz, who’s also an amateur sculptor, got into the game and created a statue designed from a lost picture of his grandmother.
Today, with 470 statues, the museum a huge success and one of the major tourist draws to Cancun. Pictures of the statues are everywhere in town – on banners hanging from stoplights and inside every dive shop you go to. Fewer beginning divers (who shockingly don’t have to be certified to go down) now kick over coral on the natural reefs and instead go to the museum. The dive operators actually complain regularly about wildlife growing over the art (which was the whole point, right?). Local politicians – even the ones who opposed it – have clamored to take credit for the whole idea.
Yet, when I got there, Diaz was pulling out his hair because no one would sponsor a flatscreen TV to play a video at a “dry” exhibit in town. He wants to build up to 10,000 statues over the next 10 years – more than the terracotta army in China. But when it comes to paying, all the dive shops sort of look down and say, “Statues? What statues?” Divers have to wear $2 park bracelets, which goes to the reserve itself. But even then, many tour boats ask you not to put them on so they can reuse them later and save the two stinking bucks.
As for Taylor, he eventually met a new woman and now has a happy family in Cancun. He hasn’t really made any money on the whole thing, since he can’t exactly sell his pieces or take them on the road, and still struggles to stay afloat (or rather, in his case, submerged). It’s not that he expected to, but considering all the money that the dive shops get taking people to the reefs, it’s a bit surprising (though he did get a contract from David Copperfield to make an underwater piano sculpture off his private island).
His new plans are incredibly ambitious, and other local artists have begun designing their own collaborations, plus one that actually listens to fish. Diaz spends every spare moment trying to drum up support for the museum and pushing for new installations. And Gonzalez, well he’s still plugging away, trying to protect his reefs. So if you happen to be heading to Cancun and you don’t have any diving experience, don’t go to the reef. Check out Taylor’s statues sprinkled across the pristine ocean floor.
And wear the damn bracelet.