Underwater Sculpture Viewers
Take Swimmingly To Trend

By BOB STERNER
For ESPACE Magazine

A scuba diving certification card is the ticket to visit the
growing sculpture garden beneath the waves. During the
next several years the number of works underwater is
likely to double with plans to sink a dozen or so statues at
dive sites around the world.

Why sink a statue into the sea where it is off limits to the
vast majority of arts patrons? “Sink it and they will
come,” said Simon Morris. The Salt Spring Island, British
Columbia, Canada, sculptor is completing a World War II
aviator bronze, slated for installation at Horseshoe Bay,
near Vancouver, this year. His 9-foot / 3-meter tall
mermaid bronze castings are gracing dive sites off Powell
Island on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast and Grand Cayman
Island’s Sunset House. And he’s beginning a series of six
Guardian of the Reef statues that will be installed at
premiere dive destinations worldwide.

“People like to visit these things,” Morris said. “Diving
destinations require something to differentiate themselves
from other sites. An underwater sculpture does the same
thing as a shipwreck in providing an interesting dive and a
marketing focal point. I’ve heard that on a good four-day
holiday weekend, Sunset House will sell $4,000 worth of
air at $8 per fill. The mermaid draws thousands of visitors
per year, and was voted by Rodale’s Scuba Diving readers
as the most popular shore dive on Grand Cayman Island.”

Dale Evers, Cayucos, Calif., said the statues provide a
commercial draw that benefits the artist and the
destination. “It has sponsorship benefits. There’s media
hype building up to the initial installation. And after that,
it’s not going anywhere. It’s constant advertising.”

Evers’ dolphins have been providing a focal point for
divers visiting Cayman Brac since 2003. “A sculpture is a
tribute to the destination, its people and its environment,”
he said. His dolphins sculpture heralds stingrays and
dolphins, two creatures associated with the Caymans. It
too is the first of a series of underwater works that
Oceanic, a San Leandro, Calif., underwater gear
manufacturer, plans to install at sites around the world.

Reef preservation is one reason why sculptors are being
commissioned to create underwater statuary. “You don’t
put them in your best area or your worst,” Morris said.
“You place them in an interesting area where divers can
visit without trampling the reef.” Visiting divers may be
new to the sport or unaccustomed to the local conditions.
“It gives them something to look at until they know what
they’re doing, and raises awareness about protecting the
reef.”

The Cruz de la Bahia was installed on a sandy stretch just
off Isla Mujeres, Mexico, by local operators to help divers
gain control of their buoyancy before embarking on the
more fragile Machones Reef nearby. The 39-foot / 12-
meter high bronze was forged by local craftsmen, and
was dedicated during its August 17, 1997, sinking
ceremony to the memory of islanders who died at sea.
The event also marked the 140th anniversary of the
settling of the Caribbean island just east of Cancun.

Morris’s Guardian of the Sea project is especially aimed at
reef protection. The first 13-foot / 4-meter bronze of an
ancient Greco-Roman warrior will be unveiled this fall at
the annual international show of the Diving Equipment &
Marketing Association, an industry group that is
supporting the effort. The statue, which was purchased
by the Diving Association of British Columbia, will join the
aviator off Horseshoe Bay some time next year. Morris
aims to develop a Guardians of the Reef organization to
raise funds for underwater statue installations worldwide.

Guido Galletti is the sculpture who started the trend in
underwater statuary. His 8.5-foot / 2.8-meter bronze
depicting Jesus Christ standing with arms up-stretched
can be seen in two locations – Portofino, Italy, and Key
Largo, Florida. Il Cristo Degli Abssi, which was installed
in 1954, recently underwent complete restoration after one
of its arms was knocked off by an errant boat anchor two
years ago. Technical experts from Liguria regional
Archaeology Department and Rome’s Restoration Center
have spent more than a year reattaching the arm, restoring
the patina and structure. The work is to be completed in
time for a gala reinstallation event this summer that is tied
with the 50th anniversary of the statue’s creation.

Galletti’s mold was used to create the Christ of the Abyss
statue in John Pennecamp Park, which became the United
States’ first underwater preserve in the early 1960s. The
statue, modeled after the record-setting Italian swimmer /
diver Duillo Mercanet, has drawn millions of visitors since
it was installed in 1965 at Key Largo Cut in the park. No
trip to the Florida Keys is complete without visiting the
statue, local tourism authorities say. Besides divers, the
statue is favored by families as a site to commit loved
ones’ ashes to the sea.

Christ of the Abyss, at a depth of 25 feet / 7.6 meters, like
many underwater statues, is shallow enough to be visited
by snorkelers as well as certified scuba divers. The
shallow depths create technical considerations for
sculptors. The marine environment is harsh on materials
and storm surges can create intense buffeting that no top-
side statue is likely ever to face. Air pockets in the hollow
investment castings must be vented or the statues might
float despite their heavy weight on land.

“Your need to use an environmental bronze alloy similar to
what is used to make ship propellers,” Morris said. “You
need to be cognizant of impurities in metal. I use only
virgin ingots when I make a statue for an underwater
installation. For regular statues, I cut off and reuse the
sprues and risers from the casting; but for underwater
ones, I use only virgin ingots. You have to make sure that
the welding rods are compatible with the casting material
and use tungsten-inert gas welding to join the sections.
The rods and the material must match. If not, you set up a
metal difference that acts as a battery and weakens the
statue over time. A zinc coating then can provide cathodic
protection to further preserve the statue.”

Evers said his biggest concern is hurricanes. “If it’s at 35
to 40 feet (/ 10 to 12 meters) at low tide, there is going to
be lots of wave action and currents in a hurricane.
Redoubling all efforts on welds is important. You have to
make all the connecting points with twice as much
surface area as you would for a land-based sculpture.
Bronze has a lot of copper and zinc in it, but it won’t last
forever. However, by the time it’s completely gone we
surely will be forgotten.”

Some artists are forgotten long before their underwater
works have washed away. Asking who created the Cruz
de la Bahia will draw a blank face from Isla Mujeres
residents and tourism authorities, even though it was
installed only seven years ago. Another statue there, the
Virgin of the Lighthouse, has slipped into anonymity as
well. The 5-foot / 2-meter solid bronze casting was sunk
decades ago by local fishermen at the base of a
cantankerous rock that had sunk more than a few skiffs in
stormy seas. Tossing offerings of coins and jewelry to
ward off perils at sea was a common custom among
fishing boat captains, who plied their hardscrabble trade in
all kinds of weather. The Virgin was reinstalled on a
pedestal in 1994 and is visited by thousands of snorkelers
annually now that it is but 3 feet / 1 meter below the
surface. Offerings no longer pile up at her feet now that
tourism has supplanted fishing as the island’s main
industry.

A 6-foot / 2-meter long bronze alligator stumps dive
operators on Grand Cayman. The casting has been at the
55-foot sea bottom beneath Bonnie’s Arch for longer than
the island’s dive masters have been involved in the sport.
A thick patina of colourful encrusting coral attests to its
long life as an underwater art object.

That an artist can be forgotten despite leaving a monument
to time was not particularly bothersome to Evers. “I think
that it’s neat in that it adds to the mystery of the sea.”
                                         PHOTO: BOB STERNER
Divers visiting Simon Morris’s Mermaid buy
thousands of dollars of compressed air alone
from Sunset House, Grand Cayman, on a
good holiday weekend.
                                                        PHOTO: FLORIDA KEYS TOURISM BOARD
Christ of the Abyss in John Pennecamp Park
off Key Largo is made from the same mold
of Il Cristo Degli Abissi off Portofino, Italy, by
Guido Galletti, the father of modern
underwater sculpture.
                                                                                 PHOTO: BARBARA  KROOSS
Virgin of the Lighthouse, installed decades
ago by fishermen as a talisman for seagoing
safety, now draws tourists to Isla Mujeres,
Mexico.
                                                                                            PHOTO: BOB STERNER
Diver examines the Cruz de la Bahia off Isla
Mujeres, Mexico. Fire coral growing on the
statue adds new meaning to the flaming
heart of Jesus.
                                                                                          PHOTO: BOB STERNER
Thick patina of colorful encrusting coral
obscures the origin of crocodile sculpture
under Bonnie’s Arch off Grand Cayman
Island.
And for Morris, the important element of the
underwater statue is the same as that of one on
land. “Man likes to leave his mark. We’re
embellishers. We like to make changes, hopefully
in a positive way.”