Collision course: what happens when science meets


By Esme Mathis

June 6, 2023

The worlds of science and art are colliding around Australia, and in the doing they’re inspiring climate action, citizen science and a sustainable future. Here’s some of our favourite examples.

Roughly 75km off the coast of Townsville in Queensland is a museum unlike any in the Southern Hemisphere. The artworks here do not hang in a gallery but are submerged underwater and colonised by marine life. Since its founding in 2020, the Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) has drawn international interest for combining traditional sculpture with reef conservation and restoration.

“There is this preconception that everybody thinks the Great Barrier Reef is dead, so I think it’s really important that people get out and see how incredibly diverse and beautiful it is,” says Jason deCaires Taylor, MOUA founder and sculptor. “We need to get everyone involved in marine conservation. Hopefully it’ll encourage a different type of audience to dive in.”

Ocean Sentinels, MOUA’s newest snorkel trail, was installed over four days in early May. These eight hybrid-form sculptures portray notable scientists and conservationists fused with elements of marine life, and relay stories about their research, heritage or conservation work. The sculptures stand 2.2m tall and are submerged only a few metres below the surface, in shallow waters ideal for snorkellers.

“They form a linear tour,” says Jason. “Each have their own story, so you learn a little bit about the individuals and what they’ve studied.”

Among their ranks are Dr John “Charlie” Veron OAM – the “godfather of corals” who identified 20 per cent of the world’s known coral species – depicted with elements of pectinia and brain corals; Professor Peter Harrison fused with staghorn corals to celebrate his contributions to the field as a “coral IVF” pioneer and discoverer of mass coral spawning on nearby Magnetic Island in 1981; and young Wulgurukaba and Yunbenen woman Jayme Marshall, who is sculpted alongside the roots of mangroves and cathedral fig trees to represent the next generation of Indigenous leaders.

It’s hard to pick a favourite, but Jason says he’s especially fond of Sir Charles Maurice Yonge’s portrait. The marine zoologist led the 1928–29 Great Barrier Reef Expedition that introduced the international scientific community to the reef. His sculpture is blended with a ramose murex shell.  

Jason made the sculptures with “green” cement and reinforced them with marine stainless steel – they’re designed to withstand Category 4 cyclones.

But most importantly, the surfaces and shapes of these artworks are designed to attract marine life.

“It’s hoped that in years to come a variety of endemic species such as corals, sponges and hydroids will change the sculptures’ appearance in vibrant and unexpected ways,” says Jason. “Like the Great Barrier Reef itself, they will become a living and evolving part of the ecosystem, emphasising both its fragility and its endurance.”

According to Dr Adam Smith, marine biologist and Deputy Chair of MOUA, colonisation has already begun.

“They’ve already been covered by a sheen of green algae,” Adam says. “As soon as they get put in the water the marine life is attracted to them. Because they’re a structure that acts a bit like an artificial reef, things settle on them; fish seek shelter and over time there will be a natural recruitment of corals.”

Annual monitoring at MOUA’s “Coral Greenhouse” documented a fivefold increase in fish abundance and diversity, compared to baseline surveys at the site.

Divers are encouraged to take photos of marine life and upload them to iNaturalist.

“The key for me is for tourists not only talking about reef conservation and their role in the planet and climate change, but taking action,” Adam says. “A small thing can be to take a photo and upload it for citizen science.”  

Adam estimates that more than 500 species have been recorded at John Brewer Reef, 70km off Townsville, from corals, molluscs, sharks, rays and a plethora of fish. 

It’s a chilly autumn morning in Sydney, and the usual city rhythm of cars, pedestrians and distant construction is disrupted by drumming and a chorus of singing voices. The music draws the attention of passing commuters, who stop mid-coffee run to watch the performance of the Kerkar Kus dance crew.  

The ceremony commemorates the official opening of a new permanent art display in Exchange Square, off the Barangaroo exit of Wynyard train station. Commissioned by Lend Lease and curated by Nina Miall, Mermer Waiskeder: Stories of the Moving Tide features 11 eagle rays handed-crafted from reclaimed ghost nets. The artwork was created by the Ghost Net Collective, a cross-cultural group in north Queensland that has been creating art from discarded, lost or abandoned fishing materials since 2009.

“The net is a silent, deadly killer and we want to raise awareness by people being able to see it,” says Lynnette Griffiths, lead artist of the Ghost Net Collective. “Everyone knows about plastic bottles, but the net is under the water, snagging on reefs and killing our fish. An estimated 80 per cent of plastic pollution in the ocean has its origins in the maritime industries [so] we really need a groundswell of support and awareness.”

The Ghost Net Collective used more than 6.5km of fishing net to create the 11 rays, making it one of the largest hand-crafted public artworks in Australia. Most of the nets were donated by Tangaroa Blue Foundation and Sydney Fish Market, including disused trawler nets taken from Indonesian waters. Despite their steel frames, the sculptures are posed in a way that evoke movement and fluidity, aided by the LED lights that pulse on their bellies.  

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