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Port Antonio gets underwater sculpture park

Portland has distinguished itself in the attractions market with an underwater sculpture park, a venture driven more by sustainable principles and art appreciation than profit.
What started as an idea to relieve the strain placed on the natural coral reef by human pollution, acidification, and overfishing is now being positioned as an alternative method to earn income for the parish.

Spearheaded by the Alligator Head Foundation, three saguaro cactus sculptures were installed in late July with funding from TBA21-Academy, which is dedicated to fostering a deeper understanding of the ocean through art.
The academy developed the Alligator Head Marine Lab in collaboration with the University of the West Indies, which resulted in the establishment of the largest privately backed fish sanctuary in Jamaica, which is managed by the Alligator Head Foundation.

Alligator Head currently oversees six kilometres of a protected fish sanctuary, stretching from Anchovy to Winnifred point, which has seen a 16 per cent increase in species diversity since its founding three years ago. The cacti, which are anchored at a depth of 30 feet, can be found in an area known as Cold Harbour. “We hoped for this to be circulated over social media and publications to generate interest both locally and internationally for people to come and visit this area and thereby generating more income for Portland,” Research Project Manager at the Alligator Head Foundation Denise Henry told the Financial Gleaner.

The sculptures were placed with consideration to aesthetics as well as ecological viability for the fish population. The cost of the project was not disclosed. 
“This would be the first underwater installation here in Jamaica of this nature. There have been other things like artificial reefs, but this is a piece of art, and so it is not as cut and dry as an artificial reef,” Henry said. The artist, Claudia Comte, spent six weeks in Jamaica creating “The Cacti Series”, which represents the arid terrain of the desert and symbolises the potential future version of the Earth on land and sea.
The pieces were first created using wooden sculptures that Comte had previously carved with a chainsaw from her work with fallen trees in Jamaica. Using high-tech methods like 3D scanning and milling robots, the artist then scanned the pieces for reproduction. The creation was reinforced with concrete to ensure that it could withstand ocean currents.
With the new attractions in place, Henry believes that the park will improve the livelihood of Anchovy residents, many of whom were displaced when the East Portland fish sanctuary was deemed a protected area.
So far, the Alligator Head Foundation has assisted the affected communities and the wider Port Antonio with lifeguards and scuba divers training. The foundation has also been in dialogue with the Blue Lagoon tour operators to further market the attraction as a must-see for visitors to the island. Henry noted that work is also under way to set up satellites water sport shops in the communities.
“We employ directly from the community, so we have a number of former fishermen that are employed here in various capacities. Our priority is the community directly impacted by the sanctuary and then we expand to the wider Port Antonio region to give them a skill set. We also want to help the community by providing another revenue stream.
Aside from an increase in earnings from water-sport activities for Portland, Henry reckons that restaurant operators, Airbnb hosts, and individuals in the transport industry could benefit from the new attraction.
“The statues are not deep. They are very visible, so people don’t have to dive on it. They could snorkel or free dive,” she said.
Although Portland has been described as a “picturesque beauty”, it has struggled to gain traction as a tourism destination. The return of cruise ship visits to Port Antonio is expected to aid in the revival of tourism in the parish, which is home to attractions such as Nonsuch Caves, Somerset Falls, Reach Falls, Rio Grande rafting, Moore Town, and the Blue and John Crow Mountain trails. Rio Grande rafting is the parish’s premier tourist attraction and, arguably, Jamaica’s oldest.
Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett has committed to making Port Antonio accessible by air, land, and sea, with the North Coast Highway coming into Port Antonio from the west and the South East Coast Highway from St Thomas, the expansion of the Ian Fleming International Airport, and the Errol Flynn marina that facilitates cruise calls.
Since the start of the year, Port Antonio has recorded visitor arrivals of 12,414, representing a mere 0.9 per cent share of the total 1.39 million stopover tourists visiting Jamaica. The average length of stay per visitor in Port Antonio was 14 days.
During the month of February, the capital seaside town of Port Antonio had one cruise ship call with 331 passengers.
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