Located at a depth of 20 feet below the surface, the rippled sand of the ocean floor off the coast of the Florida Keys might be an unlikely spot to host a music festival, but that hasn’t stopped music enthusiasts from diving underwater to rock out.
For the past 35 years, this stretch of paradise about six miles south of Big Pine Key, one of the islands that make up the archipelago, has hosted the Underwater Music Festival, an event that pairs music with conservation. Equipped with guitars, horns, drums and other musical instruments, divers descend into the depths and play along to a playlist of water-inspired songs (think “Yellow Submarine” and the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island”) that are piped underwater via speakers. Local radio station U.S.-1 Radio 104.1 FM broadcasts the show live for non-divers to enjoy.
Over the years, the event has gone from being a small grassroots effort put together by a few locals, including former disc jockey Bill Becker and dentist Fred Troxel, with the idea that once people see what’s going on beneath the surface, the more likely they would be to protect it, to a two-day festival that draws dozens of scuba divers, snorkelers and boaters to the Keys from around the world. For most of those years, August Powers, a local artist, crafts original musical instruments using non-corrosive tin and copper, which are inspired by sea life and include amusing hybrids such as a “bass-oon” and an “obloe-fish” that’s a cross between an oboe and a blowfish. In years’ past, he has created a “trombonefish” and a “manta-lin.”
“Thirty-five years ago a few Keys locals sat down and wanted to figure out a way to bring awareness to our coral reefs that would preserve them and rebuild them and restore them in any way,” says Dave Turner, executive director of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce. “They came up with this idea to play music underwater and invited divers and snorkelers to listen while also enjoying the local sea life.”
Nowadays it’s not uncommon for divers to don shark or fish costumes before descending into the deep, but all fun aside, the festival’s focus remains the same: to protect the local coral reefs and delicate marine environment that make up the Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, “Florida is the only state in the continental United States with extensive shallow coral reef formations near its coasts.” Because coral reefs provide an important ecosystem for sea life, it’s important that they remain protected, especially as many reefs around the world continue to be threatened.
“The preservation of the reef is our main purpose,” Turner says. “[To avoid any further damage], the festival takes place in a nearby sandy area so that the musicians don’t disturb the coral when they’re performing.”
Although holding a music festival underwater may seem a bit out there, Turner is quick to point out that it actually makes some sense.
“The music is obviously not as clear as when you’re sitting in a room with a stereo, but you can still hear it and understand the lyrics and music," he says. "If you were to go underwater, you would recognize the song and it would sound the same, it just has a little different tone to it. Plus, sound travels faster and farther underwater.”
The free Underwater Music Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 13. The festivities kick off at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 12 with a $15 per person reception at Looe Key Resort’s Tiki Bar, which includes a presentation discussing the importance of the local reef system.