Museum of Underwater Art, Townsville, Queensland
Experience underwater art on the Great Barrier Reef
A one-of-a-kind experience awaits at the unique Museum of Underwater Art, submerged in the shallows of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
By Tatyana Leonov
The Museum of Underwater Art, off the coast of Townsville in northern Queensland, is said to be the only underwater art museum in the Southern Hemisphere. By sharing the stories of the Great Barrier Reef and the local Aboriginal people, the museum hopes to inspire reef conservation and help preserve this natural wonder.
A museum with a difference
The first thing to know about the Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) is that it is not a traditional museum housed in a building – it’s a series of installations and sculptures within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The museum’s mission is to educate visitors on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed reef and highlight the need for conservation and restoration efforts to help protect this precious ecosystem. In the first stage of the museum's opening, two important artworks have been created.
MOUA’s first installation, Ocean Siren, a statue of a female figure, opened in 2019. It stands in the shallow foreshore waters off Townsville, so you can see the free public artwork at any time while visiting the city.
Coral Greenhouse, the second artwork, opened in 2020. It has been installed on the ocean floor 18 metres (60 feet) below sea level at John Brewer Reef, about two hours by boat off the coast of Townsville. The best way to see Coral Greenhouse is to take a licensed tour of the site and dive down to the ocean floor.
Both of these artworks were created by Jason deCaires Taylor, a British sculptor renowned for his work in the underwater realm. He’s also an environmentalist and a professional underwater photographer. Jason’s installations are typically designed to highlight the importance of reef conservation, using environmentally friendly materials. His aim is to spark a debate about our relationship to the world’s oceans, and also promote a vision of culturally and environmentally sensitive tourism.
MOUA has more installations planned, including artworks on Palm Island and Magnetic Island, in coming years.
Heed the call of the siren
The Ocean Siren sits off The Strand beachfront promenade in Townsville (a four-hour drive south of Cairns, or less than two hours by plane from Brisbane). Walk to the end of the Strand jetty for the best view of the four-metre (13-feet) sculpture, which was modelled on a local schoolgirl of Wulgurukaba Aboriginal heritage – the Wulgurukaba people are the traditional owners of the land here.
The illuminated sculpture is linked to a live data feed from a weather station on the Great Barrier Reef, and the statue’s 202 LEDs change colour in response to changing sea temperatures. Jason deCaires Taylor designed Ocean Siren to be a visual representation of real-time reef conditions and to bring attention to the effects warming sea temperatures can have on the fragile organisms that make up the living coral reef.
Seeing art beneath the waves
After you’ve taken in the Ocean Siren, head out on the reef to see the Coral Greenhouse. The stainless-steel greenhouse structure also contains 22 sculptures of children, who act as reef guardians. Since they’ve been submerged, the greenhouse and the sculptures have already begun to evolve, as fish dart through them and sea plants weave around them. Snorkellers will get a bird’s-eye view of the artwork, but scuba divers will have the most immersive experience.
You can access the Coral Greenhouse by private boat free of charge – MOUA will provide GPS coordinates so you can locate the submerged site. The easiest way to see the artwork, however, is by taking a boat tour licensed by MOUA. Five operators are licensed to run scuba outings: Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive, Yongala Dive, Pro Dive Magnetic Island, Orpheus Island Lodge (on guest request) and SeaLink Queensland (from early 2021). Tours depart from Townsville, Magnetic Island and Orpheus Island.