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Ocean Sentinel statue immortalises coral crusader Peter Harrison


Sharlene King, media office at Southern Cross University
14 April 2022

When corals settle and grow all over Peter Harrison’s submerged body in a few years’ time the natural process of decay and rebirth will thrill the Southern Cross University marine ecologist.

Fortunately for Peter – and for marine science – it’s not a moment of foreboding. Instead, in a fascinating art-science metamorphosis, the corals will make their new home on a 2.2 metre-tall submerged likeness by UK installation artist Jason deClaires Taylor.

deClaires Taylor’s Ocean Sentinels is a series of eight sculptures, modelled off a handpicked selection of the Great Barrier Reef’s world-leading marine scientists and conservationists, including Southern Cross University’s Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison.

These are a hybrid-form sculpture: a synthesis of human figures and natural marine forms. Crafted using a new high grade, low-carbon earth-friendly concrete and reinforced with marine stainless steel, they weigh as much as 2.8 tonnes.

The artist has morphed Professor Harrison with branching Acropora corals (also known as staghorn corals). Around the statue base, deClaires Taylor has added molecular structures as a nod to Professor Harrison’s extensive scientific research on coral spawning (mass reproduction).

The 2.2 metre tall Ocean Sentinel statue of Peter Harrison (credit MOUA).

“I hope that in years to come a variety of endemic species such as corals, sponges and hydroids will change the sculptures’ appearance in vibrant and unpredictable ways,” said Mr deCaires Taylor who has been creating underwater museums and sculpture parks beneath the waves for the past 16 years, submerging more than 1,100 living artworks throughout the world’s seas and oceans.

“Like the Great Barrier Reef itself, they will become a living and evolving part of the ecosystem, emphasising both its fragility and its endurance.”

Professor Harrison said he was honoured to have his life’s work celebrated in art at Townsville, nearby to where his internationally-recognised coral reef and restoration research began 40 decades ago at Magnetic Island.

“It’s absolutely brilliant; I love the way the coral is engulfing the human form. In the future I can’t wait to see live corals growing all over it and I disappear.

“I’m hoping Acropora branching corals establish themselves first. It’s the first coral I worked on 40 years ago. These hard, foundational corals are so important for providing habitat for fish and other organisms on the Reef.”

Peter Harrison with his likeness (credit Peter Harrison).

The Ocean Sentinels is an initiative of the Museum of Underwater Art. MOUA also owns the ‘Ocean Siren’ along The Strand at Townsville and the ‘Coral Greenhouse’ at John Brewer Reef.

MOUA Board Director, Paul Victory, said the exhibit is about connecting with as many people as possible, to spark meaningful conversation around the Great Barrier Reef and its future.

“The chance to see the world-class sculptures in the flesh and learn about their stories, promoting reef conservation and the link between art and science to a wider audience, is incredible,” Mr Victory said.

Where to see the Ocean Sentinels

All eight Ocean Sentinel pieces are planned to be installed in shallow depths on reef areas near Townsville (at this stage mid-2022), providing the perfect experience for snorkellers and divers to get up close to the sculptures.

Until then, five sculptures (including Professor Harrison’s) are on display at Townsville’s Museum of Tropical Queensland (until May 15), providing the opportunity to see the sentinels up close on dry land.

A close-up of the detail on Peter Harrison's statue (credit MOUA).


Learn more

Peter Harrison as Museum of Underwater Art muse

Peter Harrison reflects on his Ocean Sentinel

Associate Professor Adam Smith, Deputy Chair of the MOUA (Museum of Underwater Art) Board: We're here at the Museum of Tropical Queensland Ocean Sentinels' launch. I'm Adam Smith, Deputy Chair of the board and very pleased to talk to Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison who is one of the muses, one of the legendary scientists that has been made into a sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor. What do you think of the artwork that Jason's created about you?

Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison, Southern Cross University: Look it's absolutely brilliant, I love the way in which the coral is totally engulfing the human form and what I'd love to see in future is live corals growing all over it and I would disappear under a layer of live corals. So that's my hope for the future when it goes on the reef.

Associate Professor Adam Smith: You are the man who discovered coral spawning. I can't believe it was 40 years ago can you tell us about that discovery at Magnetic Island?

Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison: Yes Magnetic Island just off the coast here from Townsville is actually really important in marine ecology research and I was one of a group of friends and postgraduate students that were studying at James Cook University in the early 1980s and we're all really interested in how and when corals reproduced and we started looking through all the textbooks and we couldn't find much detail. Surprisingly very few corals had actually had their sexual reproductive lives explored. So we banded together formed a team and we discovered something extraordinary which is many different types of corals actually synchronize their spawning on just a few nights each year and this occurs after full moon periods in late spring and early summer. And what's extraordinary is that there are literally trillions of eggs and sperm are released during these events and that's so important to the health of the reef system because it's during those mass spawning events that you get billions of larvae produced and they disperse around and help restore the populations and maintain population growth on the reef.

Associate Professor Adam Smith: What species do you hope will be one of the first to attach to Peter Harrison underwater?

Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison: Look I would really hope to get some Acropora branching corals on there that's what's depicted here. It's the first coral I worked on more than 40 years ago and they're so important in providing habitat for fish and other organisms on the reef so I'd love to see this completely coated in all sorts of different corals but the primary ones that are likely to settle first will be the branching corals.

Associate Professor Adam Smith: Look we're in 2022 the water's pretty warm, the corals are bleaching off Yunbenun (Magnetic Island). You could potentially be going, oh my god, but you could also go this is an opportunity. How do you balance those two tensions as a scientist and someone who cares about our environment?

Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison: Yeah look I'm passionate about not giving up on any part of our natural environment. We know that the Great Barrier Reef is damaged. We know that it's now a mosaic of some perfectly healthy coral communities and reef communities some that are in the process of natural recovery but many need active intervention to kick-start the recovery of corals. We're losing corals faster than they're naturally being replenished now. So it's both a very big threat but it's also an opportunity for us to get involved and apply the knowledge we've gained over recent decades and actually really focus all of our energy onto active restoration in meaningful ways.