Living Sea Sculptures: Underwater Art as Coral Refuge

Colleen Flanigan makes beautiful underwater sculptures that are a true and rare expression of art as ecology.

For more than 20 years, The Global Coral Reef Alliance (GCRA) has created steel underwater structures to restore devastated reefs, create sustainable fishing, and protect shores from erosion. When I discovered their Biorock® work, I was completely blown away by what I learned from them—not only from seeing the devastation caused when reefs were exploded with dynamite for fishing, but by this seemingly miraculous hands-on solution to restore marine habitat. It's a true and rare expression of art as ecology.

I am a welder, gardener, and mixed-media artist, so immediately I felt a connection with this life supporting, creative work. And I saw that their process was very much like electroforming—electroplating metal onto forms—which I was already doing. The way it works is that by running a low volt current directly through the metal, it precipitates limestone minerals naturally occurring in seawater to deposit onto the electrified form of any shape or size. Corals and other organisms readily colonize, and fish also move in.

According to studies in Innovative Methods of Marine Ecosystem Restoration these corals can grow faster and survive hotter temperatures that would normally kill them. Recognizing that my skills and interests perfectly fit with this form of living art, I thought 'I have to do this!' So I learned in Bali how to scuba and create underwater sculptures that would incorporate this restorative technology.


Since attending the 2nd International Biorock Workshop, led by Wolf Hilbertz and Dr. Tom Goreau in Pemuteran, Bali, in 2004, the sculptures we made with an international team, mostly Indonesian marine biologists, have grown with new life in a region previously devastated by dynamite and cyanide fishing. Reef-building corals are animals dependent upon symbiotic algae partners (zooxanthellae), which supply food and create vibrant colors. Climate change and carbon absorption are two of the major threats endangering corals, as well as overfishing, disease, reckless development, and pollution.

As occurrences of heating trends in the ocean increase and the alkalinity decreases (acidification) at unprecedented rates, living coral reefs, which have survived 5,000 - 10,000 years of evolution, are being challenged to adapt rapidly in order to survive. Corals have limited range of temperature tolerance, so a fluctuation as little as one degree Celsius for a duration of a few weeks can cause coral to expel its zooxanthellae and appear bleached—one step from death by starvation. Acidification further weakens their ability to build strong exoskeletons as they struggle to come by the calcium carbonate and minerals needed. But the mineral accretion process actually addresses climate change, ocean acidification, and energy budgets in a unique way; the electrolytic boost of pH essentially gives coral free exoskeleton so that it can use its energy for other vital activities, like reproduction. And the electrical charge appears to give them have higher tolerance to other environmental stresses.


Today, art is increasingly becoming a growing part of the coral regeneration movement. I created Living Sea Sculpture as an artistic sister to the scientific GCRA. My most recent Biorock endeavor, DNA Dividing, is in Cancun, Mexico, where it awaits installation into the underwater museum, MUSA. When we delivered the sculpture to Puerto Cancun for deployment in 2011, bureaucratic hang ups regarding permits and contracts emerged. It was disappointing to be so close to planting a coral refuge, and have to leave it under a tarp.

Everyone on my team worked so hard to fabricate this Kickstarter-funded project, but the contracts between our power supplier and the government are still being rewritten as I watch the window closing for good installation weather in 2013.


While we await the green light in Mexico, let's make a Living Sea Sculpture somewhere else! Being an activist and an artist, waiting around for paperwork is deadly for me and for all the coral and beaches we could be growing. Are you living somewhere where you see dying reefs and want to take action?

Here are a few ways to get involved:

  • Please share your story and questions on the Living Sea Sculpture Facebook page. If you have photos about your experience with corals, post them.
  • Organize a dedicated local team that will commission and maintain a project. If it is private property, easier. Public, we need permits. Maybe you are a scientist, resort owner, electrical engineer, diver, welder, philanthropist, photographer, student, government official, social media maven… get the permits and rally the community.
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Together we can create a coral conservatory: A laboratory for regeneration of one of our most valuable living resources.

Want to do your part to protect the oceans? Click here to add getting serious about protecting sharks and the oceans to your to-do list.