Like a small army of ghosts, their rocky silhouettes are outlined on the water’s bottom. A fascinating underwater museum in Colombia’s Caribbean aims to protect coral reefs threatened by tourism and climate change.

25 sculptures, up to 1.5 metres high, captivate divers as they venture into the blue waters of the 3km paradise island of Isla Fuerte.2 Dedicated to the 3000 souls of the Bolivar Department. Between 6 and 8 metres below the waves, the pre-Columbian style and the abundance of coral that covers the waves give it the appearance of a thousand-year-old shipwreck.

“Artistic project”

“When I noticed the degradation of the island’s natural coral reefs, I saw in this artistic project the potential to protect and enhance the coral ecosystem,” Tatiana Olego, who came up with the initiative in 2018, known as MUSZIF, told AFP.

The sculpture now provides a refuge for the coral reef, which has been damaged over the years by tourists and rising water temperatures.

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And underwater, artworks created by two local sculptors/ceramists will provide an “ideal base” for new coral growth, M explains.myself Oregon.

Since the beginning of the year, the world has been experiencing mass bleaching due to record ocean temperatures, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Colombia has a coral reef area equivalent to 100,000 soccer fields, but according to the Ministry of the Environment, 70% of it has already lost its color.

The founder of this one-of-a-kind museum, Colombia’s first underwater museum, began the process by first “seeding” coral fragments onto the clay sculptures, after which, she notes with satisfaction, the corals began to attach themselves to the statues spontaneously.

Colorful speckles cover statues of pre-Columbian chiefs and deities, among which colorful fish zigzag.

M was inspired by a work by British sculptor Jason Taylor that was sunk off the coast of Mexico.myself Orego began searching for local artists to help establish his own underwater museum.

That’s how she met Hugo Osorio and Pedro Fuentes, local indigenous ceramists who specialize in shaping clay extracted by hand from nearby swamps, about 60 kilometers from Isla Fuerte.

“Idol” Zenu

Their carvings imitate the work of the Xenu people, who lived in this part of Colombia’s Caribbean before the Spanish conquest.

“Our ancestors were also passionate about pottery. This all comes from our roots (…) My mother also makes little figurines,” explains Fuentes, 48, as he molds black clay mixed with sand.

“We will continue to preserve this culture so that it is not lost,” says Osorio, 59, proudly.

Their “idols” and other figures, like those of the Xenu, evoke motherhood, hunting and the search for firewood, as she explains, recalling fragments found during archaeological digs she took part in as a youth in the hills surrounding the marsh.

They confessed to selling hundreds of pre-Colombian items to dealers in Bogotá and abroad, fetching them exorbitant prices.

“It is a great sadness. Our heritage has been lost. We are trying to recover it but it is no longer possible”, lamented Hugo Osorio.

The museum currently receives over 2,000 visitors a year, including tourists, divers and freediving enthusiasts.

It’s “an alternative space to welcome tourists and avoid overloading the natural reefs that are already there,” M added.myself Oregon.

In places like Isla Fuerte, where tourism has grown rapidly in recent years, human activities further threaten coral.

Some curious people tear off pieces of coral and let them float to the surface, but in other places the damage is caused by involuntary movements and flapping palms that damage this fragile ecosystem. “People don’t understand that coral is a living thing.”