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Unconventional and Otherworldly Underwater Art Exhibit Unveiled in Algarve, Portugal

Portuguese artist Vhils creates a sustainable artificial reef as part of art installation for divers.

By Melissa McGibbon | Updated On October 11, 2023
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Unconventional and Otherworldly Underwater Art Exhibit Unveiled in Algarve, Portugal

After three years of planning and implementation, Art Reef, an underwater exhibit by renowned Portuguese artist Vhils, has debuted in Algarve, Portugal. Located about a mile from the shore of the small coastal city of Albufeira in the southern Algarve region of Portugal, the 13-piece iron and concrete installation is only accessible to divers.

Image of the brand new Art Reef by artist Vhils in Portugal.

Art Reef is the newest underwater attraction of Portugal's Algarve coast.

Courtesy Visit Portugal

The Art Reef Project

With the help of Energias de Portugal (EDP), a Portuguese electric company, Vhils and his team were able to transform old power plant machinery from coal-fired stations into decontaminated, decarbonized, ocean-safe works of art. They sunk the art into place 40 feet below the surface to serve as a new artificial reef and spot for underwater tourists to visit.

As part of the project, Vhils partnered with researchers at the Center for Marine Sciences (CCMAR) at the University of Algarve to perform sustainability impact studies and determine how likely it is for organisms to settle and grow on the structure. They also enlisted the help of Plant A Coral whose mission is to rescue and replant corals that were accidentally detached from the seafloor by fishery nets. More than 200 corals were saved as part of the project and are now thriving at the Art Reef.

Related Reading: Epic Pelagic Action Awaits Divers in the Azores

Art Reef buoy

Art Reef buoy

Courtesy Visit Portugal

Underwater Exhibit

The Art Reef is already attracting a variety of marine life, including spider crabs, urchins and octopuses who have made it their new home. Some of the structures look like coral and some look very much like they are from a factory. Divers will notice that each piece has a subtle face incorporated into its design, which Vhils said represents the relationship between humans and the sea.

The Art Reef in Albufeira

The team selected Albufeira as it met the necessary criteria for an artificial reef. Eduardo Quinteiro, project manager for the Vhils Studio, said, “The objective was being able to find a place that encompassed three characteristics: distance from the shore, depth and having a placement between a rock formation and the shore to protect it from currents and ensure durability.” The area is mostly sandy with a rocky outcrop and sandy substrate, which helps protect the new installation and promotes the growth of algae, barnacles, bryozoans, coral and other aquatic organisms.

Image of the brand new Art Reef by artist Vhils in Portugal.

Image of the brand new Art Reef by artist Vhils in Portugal.

Pieter Firlefyn

Sinking the Sculptures

Getting the works of art into place was no small feat. The pieces ranged in weight from 5,500 pounds to 90 tons–that’s roughly the weight of 45 hippopotamuses. Samuel Avelar, a location manager and his team used a system of cleverly rigged industrial balloon floats to transport and sink the completed sculptures into place. The 13 pieces are arranged 15 to 30 feet apart to make the site easy to navigate.

Living Art

Vhils said he wanted to create living art that people could interact with and where marine life could flourish. He added that the project turned out a bit different than the original concept, but anticipated that working in an underwater environment would present challenges. “The idea was shaped by the limitations of the sea, but we would not have had the same outcome without it and we are happy with the unique result,” Vhils said.

Visiting the Art Reef

Dive shops based in Albufeira include Easydivers and Indigo Divers.

Related Reading: Exploring Portugal from Marine to Cuisine as a Scuba Diver

Topside Activities in Albufeira

Albufeira is known for its dazzling limestone rock formations, caves, golden sandy beaches and pleasant climate.

Relax at the Beach

There are more than two dozen beaches in Albufeira, but Praia da Falésia, Praia de São Rafael, and Praia dos Pescadores are the most popular.

Benagil Caves SUP and Kayak

The famous Benagil Caves are about 20 miles from Albufeira and the best way to experience them is by SUP or kayak. You can book a half-day adventure from the Albufeira marina.

Food and Wine Tour

Go on a guided tour through a nearby vineyard and sample a selection of Portuguese cheeses, charcuterie, pastel de natas and firewater.