Grenada thrills above and below the waves

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A report by Kim Honey for The Star.

In a society where quietude is elusive, this small Caribbean isle and its tiny satellites offer more than their fair share of off-ramps from the information highway.

A body lies face down, half buried in the sand. After the initial shock, it registers as non-human and we snorkel on.

There is another and another, and then we spy a ring of figures where the escapees were once anchored.

This is Vicissitudes, a sculpture made of rebar and cement from plaster casts of two locals by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor in 2006. The image of a circle of children holding hands on the ocean floor, bodies and faces transformed by a strange and hauntingly beautiful display of coral, sponges and algae, is the calling card for this, the world’s first underwater sculpture park.

In a society where quietude is elusive, this small Caribbean isle and its tiny satellites, Petit Martinique and Carriacou, offer more than their fair share of off-ramps from the information highway. But it is the sea that offers absolute respite from the swooshes, pings and ringtones that command our attention every millisecond of the day.

After plunging over the side of the Seafari Explorer into the shallow bay, all sound is swallowed by the sea and the visual cortex kicks into overdrive.

Close by is The Lost Correspondent. A journalist sits at a typewriter with laminated copies of news clippings spread over a desk, although algae and water long ago obscured headlines and text. Un-Still Life, a table and fruit-bowl tableau, is next, then a second version of Vicissitudes, all of them now home to living things.

It was the artist’s intent to invoke a meditation on the changes humans have wrought on 70 per cent of the Earth that lies underwater, a world altered by the march of progress on land, and one we often give little thought to other than to marvel at its vastness as we gaze at the horizon.

DeCaires Taylor knew corrosion would attack the metal rebar he used to shape the sculptures, but hoped sea life would move in fast enough to cover them in living armour, explains Seafari Explorer captain Howard Clarke.

But in 2009, when deCaires Taylor was at work on a new underwater gallery off the coast of Cancun, storm surges attacked Vicissitudes.

It was repaired twice, but in 2012, the non-profit Grenada Underwater Sculpture Management Inc. (GUSMI) — led by Clarke, its chairperson and a key fundraiser — put together $28,000 (U.S.) from local sponsors to pay deCaires Taylor to make another Vicissitudes in Mexico and ship it back to Grenada.

“This was very much a favour Jason was doing us and doesn’t reflect the real cost, which I would expect to be four or five times what we paid him,” Clarke says.

The second Vicissitudes was placed in shallower water so snorkellers could see it better than the first, which requires a free dive or scuba gear to examine its changing face. GUSMI is now planning to shore up Vicissitudes1 again, as it was recently damaged by another tropical storm and they are racing to ensure the reef habitat is preserved on the remaining upright sculptures.

The marine life, which Clarke says is magnified by about 30 per cent when viewed through water, is a supersized riot of neon. The blue tang seem as big as salad plates and a lone parrotfish, with its turquoise eyeliner and ethereal blue-green and yellow markings, is more like a platter. I spot a large silvery fish about half a metre long and when I surface and excitedly spit out “barracuda,” Seafaris guide Albert Christopher shushes me. Just like sharks, the fish has an undeserved reputation as a man-eater, most likely due to a gruesome set of teeth.

DeCaires Taylor — a graduate of London Institute of Arts and a dive instructor who grew up exploring the reefs of Malaysia — arrived in Grenada intending to open a dive shop. After Hurricane Ivan ripped through the island in 2004 and Hurricane Emily followed the next year, he decided to create marine sculptures with a conservation bent and asked the government for permission to sink them under the waves.

Inspired by the Land Art movement of the ’60s, which married art, the outdoors and social activism, deCaires Taylor placed the artwork in sandy spots in the hope they would be transformed into artificial reefs, and chose Moliniere Bay to lure tourist traffic away from an over-visited snorkel spot to the north.

Three years before the first sculpture went down, Howard and Suzanne Clarke chucked their high-pressure sales jobs in England, learned how to sail from scratch, and started exploring the Caribbean in a 41-foot catamaran. They spent a year in the Bahamas and sailed to every Caribbean island but three. They had their son Sam in Puerto Rico, but decided to drop anchor for good in Grenada. “This is what we think is absolutely paradise,” says Clarke. “It ticks all the boxes.”

Grenada Seafaris Powerboat Adventure was set up in 2007. Since it takes visitors on excursions along the southwest coast, and the first stop is a snorkel among the sculptures and the fishes, they have a vested interest in acting as park stewards. The Clarkes are more like guardian angels, raising money, helping with repairs and installing new art, which is no easy task as some pieces weigh as much as eight tonnes. As deCaires Taylor moved on from Cancun to Lanzarote, Spain, where he created an underwater museum in the Atlantic, other artists have been commissioned to contribute work to the 800-square-metre site, now home to 75 works.

The artists now know the minimum weight for a sculpture to withstand the tumultuous ocean environment is two-and-a-half tonnes, while steel rebar has been replaced with stainless steel, and cement is now reinforced with fibre glass.

We climb back on the boat, a Rigid Inflatable Bullet like those used by U.S. navy Seals, and sit astride saddle seats as Clarke speeds to Quarantine Point, where a buoy marks one of Grenada’s two coral farms. Together, the farms have produced 2,000 fragments of staghorn coral that have been planted on depleted reefs in Grand Anse and Carriacou, and the pilot project has been so successful the Grenadian government will try to grow mustard hill and brain coral next.

As the sound of wind and wave recede and the hum of life on land resumes, I already miss the silence of the ocean and its brilliant treasures. The sculpture park is an underwater image that will stay with me forever, and it serves to remind us that what lies beneath is as worthy of protection as the earth under our feet.

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