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This Gigantic Art Octopus Is The Key To A Coral Reef Revival

A group of artists and entrepreneurs transformed a ship into an interactive dive site in the British Virgin Islands. Their hope: to draw tourist dollars that will fund environmental research and draw attention to the degraded state of the oceans.

On a rainy day in mid-April, a group of artists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and locals gathered on the shore of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands to watch the Kodiak Queen, one of five boats that survived the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, sink to the bottom of the ocean. At one point, they thought she was going to flip. It was a tense moment.

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For months before, a team of artists had devoted themselves to cleaning the boat and transforming its many chambers into an interactive art experience, adorned with a hollow rebar and mesh kraken whose 80-foot tentacles extend along the length of the deck. At the bottom of the ocean, the Kodiak Queen would become the Project YOKO BVI Art Reef, a unique new dive site in the BVI that would act as both a tourist site and a way to draw attention and conservation efforts to the region’s plummeting coral reef populations.

“We had this fun, wacky idea to catalyze play and joy to unite people around a project.” [Photo: BVI Art Reef]
If the boat flipped on the way to the bottom of the ocean, much of the artists’ work would have been compromised. But just as the Kodiak Queen sank under the surface, she righted herself, and a cheer went up from the crowd on the beach. “Watching this ship, which has so much history and so many hours put into it, go down was a joyful thing,” Aydika James tells Fast Company. “It felt like a beginning.”

James is the art director of Secret Samurai Productions, a collective of artists that aims to solve real-world problems through art. She’s also a member of Maverick1000, a group of entrepreneurs who meet annually on Sir Richard Branson’s private Necker Island in the BVI.

When a local mechanic brought the ship to the attention of Richard Branson, the entrepreneur and philanthropist decided the way to save it would be to turn it into an artificial dive site. [Photo: BVI Art Reef]
That meeting last year, James says, is how the idea for the Project YOKO art reef came about. During the course of the week-long meeting, Lauren Keil, the foundation manager for Unite BVI–a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the islands, particularly its children–gave a presentation on the challenges the BVI community and oceans were facing: namely, that global warming and overfishing of the goliath grouper species have impacted the health of 90% of the region’s coral reefs, which account for 45% of the tourism industry in the BVI. Keil also addressed the fact that despite the BVIs being surrounded by ocean, more than one in 10 local children do not know how to swim, and as such, are disconnected from the health of the marine environment around them.

But Keil also presented on another, more esoteric issue: the WWII fuel barge that was discovered, a few years ago, to be languishing in a junkyard in Road Town, the capital of the BVI. When Owen Buggy, a local mechanic, brought the ship to the attention of Branson, the entrepreneur and philanthropist decided the way to save it would be to turn it into an artificial dive site.

“An old abandoned ship is a great platform for an art piece, and an art piece could be a great tourism draw.” [Photo: BVI Art Reef]
It didn’t take long, James says, for her and a team of Maverick1000 entrepreneurs to connect the dots between the issues, and propose Project YOKO (a mashup of Kodiak Queen and the boat’s former name, Navy fuel barge YO-44), as a solution. “I thought: An old abandoned ship is a great platform for an art piece, and an art piece could be a great tourism draw—we could tie dive proceeds from this eco-tourism site back into marine health maintenance efforts and swim instruction programs for the island’s kids,” James says. The idea was to transform the ship, and partner with marine science cause partners would use the site as a base to conduct research and rehabilitation efforts.

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James and her team pitched the proposal to the Maverick1000 conference last spring; on the spot, fellow Mavericks and Branson pledged enough funds to support the project’s development. Though a local BVI blog estimated the project cost over $4 million, James says it was accomplished with a fraction of that sum, but won’t release the actual cost.

The Secret Samurai Productions team, led by James, started work on the ship almost right away. “Once we were on the ground in the BVI doing this build, half the people who walked by, James says, “just looked at us and asked, ‘What the heck are you doing?’’ But as it started to come together, James says, “we had tremendous support from the government and locals—young schoolchildren came by to pain their names on the ship, and one woman, who learned that the proceeds would go back to children’s swim education, offered to cook for our team.”

And in the process, the network of partners backing the Project YOKO art reef brought in the environmental research nonprofit Beneath the Waves, which will use an emerging technology called environmental DNA, or eDNA, to collect data on the entire marine ecosystem around the vessel. That hollow kraken actually plays a role here: The body and tentacles will act as a protected environment in which scientists will foster the repopulation of the dwindling goliath grouper, whose presence in the waters helps form the ecosystem that is essential to the health of the coral reefs. Had the ship rolled, like James initially feared she would, the height of the kraken in the water would have shifted, and created a less optimal habitat for the grouper. As the ship rests now, it’s at the exact location scientists need to start rehabilitating the species.

“Watching this ship, which has so much history and so many hours put into it, go down was a joyful thing.” [Photo: BVI Art Reef]
Now that Project YOKO is at the bottom of the ocean and preparing to welcome divers, its organizers are working with local BVI dive operators to ensure that people who dive the art reef commit to a $10 donation (diving reefs is usually free) that will funnel back into marine health research and children’s swim education.

“We had this fun, wacky idea to catalyze play and joy to unite people around a project that would touch on a number of different challenges in the BVIs,” James says. While it took a complex network of organizations and actors to bring it about, “the whole purpose is that eventually all the people who put this together will be forgotten, and the new life and economy the reef will create will remain.”

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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