Diving the fascinating, imperative underwater museum of Isla Mujeres.
The sea is the color of glass, clear and green and azure. Sunlight heats the sky and spangles the waves. I am just a few miles off the sleepy end of the Yucatan peninsula: Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo. My hotel, on Playa Norte, is perhaps three feet above sea level (that’s being generous). The tide is already tearing away at the foundations here and the hotels have responded by building sea walls and breakwaters. The water comes in and eats away at the footings. It pulls the earth out to sea. It is unrelenting. The buildings persist though in an attempt to—quite literally—hold back the tide. But today the sea is calm and the beach soft and glorious with palapas and hammocks and beach chairs and the rustic elegance of Mexico—all old wood and turquoise—as I come down to the shore.
The tour boat arrives, bright white with a slice of blue across the bow. I wade out to meet it, the water shallow to my knees for 100 feet offshore, and climb aboard. We motor off the coast with snorkel gear and beer and the constant hum of the speakers banging the music that defines Cancún—like the world’s a constant party and there’s no tomorrow, no price anyone will ever have to pay. The sky blazes in its winter heat and the air smells of salt and sunscreen. Gulls trail the boat and fill the air with laughter.
When the boat captain stops and says with a grin, Estamos aqui!, I pull on my flippers and fall back over the rail with one hand hard against my mask. There’s a blinding wash of bubbles and then suddenly I am floating inside the jade-cool clarity. The water is welcoming after the day’s heat. I dive down. Beneath the water my body’s weight is weightless. I am nothing. I am free. Below me, beneath the water, there are stone bodies standing. There are more than 500 bodies below the water here, across more than 400 square meters. They are so much heavier than me.
They stand in rows like those Chinese terra cotta warriors that stand forever, buried beneath the earth. The infantry. The cavalry. The chariot and the horses. Those soldiers, each face unique, they stand forever at attention beneath the earth, buried by the god-emperor Qin Shi Huang, who wanted his world to go on and on forever without end. He was buried in a hill famed for gold and jade. He was buried with every luxury he could imagine. He was buried with palaces and towers, with rivers made of mercury. He was buried beneath the stars of an artificial sky.
Here in Mexico, beneath the jade-colored water, these stone bodies wait eyeless and grow coral and fans beneath the water. They are all waiting. They are frozen in a moment in time. They play cards. They watch television. They read with a dog at their feet. They make dinner and take acupuncture. Some bury their heads in the sand and some raise their faces and pray to their sky that is first water and then a silver shelf of air. But they all wait.
They wait and with them, in this water clear as the wings of angels, triggerfish float. Parrot fish nibble at the statues and needle fish darn the skirts of the women who wait beneath the water. The fish move like little slices of light. They are the color of the sky at dawn. They are at home here. The fish are nimble as fingers; they jitter and juke away from my hands as I push through a garden of sunken stone. A garden of us. This stone garden below the sea is a mirror, the way the sky above the water is mirror. I look down and I see the world above the water. The world we want to last, forever and ever, amen.
The statues are at home beneath this water, too. They are at home beneath water that is the color of heat rising off the land. They are at home as the ocean rises all around them. They are patient. Beneath this water, stone bodies wait like sentinels. They wait like a warning. These statues wait beneath the weight of the rising tide.
Jeffrey Thomson is a poet, memoirist, translator, and editor, and is the author of ten books including Half/Life: New & Selected Poems (Alice James Books), the memoir fragile, The Belfast Notebooks, The Complete Poems of Catullus, and the edited collection From the Fishouse. He has been an NEA Fellow, the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, and the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow at Brown University. He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington.
Jason deCaires Taylor is a prolific sculptor, environmentalist, and professional underwater photographer who became the first of a new generation of artists to shift the concepts of the land art movement into the realm of the marine environment. His projects are predominately exhibited underwater in submerged and tidal marine environments, exploring modern themes of conservation and environmental activism. Taylor’s major projects include Molinere Bay Underwater Sculpture Park (Grenada) Museo Atlantico (Spain), The Rising Tide (Thames, London), Ocean Atlas (Bahamas), MUSA (Mexico), Nexus (Norway), Coralarium (Maldives) and MOUA, Museum of Underwater Art (Australia). Find him at @jasondecairestaylor.