• Mariah Reynolds "plays" a local artist's sculpted musical instrument at a previous Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The event at Looe Key Reef, off Big Pine Key, features a Keys radio station's ocean-themed broadcast, with music and coral reef conservation announcements piped beneath the sea. Underwater enthusiasts can participate in person or listen online. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

     

  • By: Carol Shaughnessy
  • June 17, 2020

Conservation-minded divers and snorkelers can enjoy a unique underwater concert that supports reef protection Saturday, July 11, in the Florida Keys —  home to the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.

Now in its 36th year, the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival is held in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at beautiful Looe Key Reef (about six miles south of Big Pine Key). Activities take place under permit from the sanctuary, which protects the waters around the entire Florida Keys island chain.

Looe Key Reef

The one-of-a-kind festival takes place at Looe Key Reef, an area of the sanctuary about six miles south of Big Pine Key.

For more than three decades, the unique “submerged songfest” has encouraged coral reef protection and environmentally responsible diving in the Keys’ colorful ocean realm.

Lower Keys resident Bill Becker and a buddy started the offbeat festival as an arts and cultural offering, but they didn’t really expect it to last.

“Originally this was just supposed to be a one-time event,” admitted Bill. “People loved it. They said, ‘What a great idea. It’s normally a silent world down there, but with music now it just enhances the whole diving experience. Let’s do it every year.'”

So the four-hour marine musical event is staged annually by Keys radio station US1 104.1 FM — where Bill is the longtime news director — in partnership with the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce.

Bill programs an ocean-themed playlist of selections that are broadcast on the station, and piped underwater via speakers suspended beneath boats above the reef.

Swimming among Looe Key’s colorful tropical fish and coral formations, participants can sway to a sea-focused “soundtrack” made up of ditties like the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Fins” and the theme from “The Little Mermaid.”

This year, underwater enthusiasts who can’t be in the Keys for the festival can participate remotely, sharing the listening experience via the station’s website at us1radio.com/.

mermaid at Underwater Music Festival

Samantha Langsdale blows air through a sculpted “musical instrument” during a past Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

For those planning to immerse themselves in the experience at Looe Key, social distancing and other safety protocols to combat COVID-19 will be observed on all charter dive boats — and should be practiced on private vessels as well.

To support the festival’s conservation message, the underwater music will be interspersed with diver-awareness messages about ways to minimize environmental impacts on the world’s coral reefs, whose rich biodiversity has led them to be called the rainforests of the sea.

“We put music underwater so that the divers and snorkelers and fish and the marine life can enjoy it,” said Bill. “And at the same time, we have a serious message about the coral reef — about preserving the reef, lessening our own impacts to it and being aware of just how important the reef is.”

Along with its focus on environmentally conscious diving, the festival also offers a bucket-list underwater experience. Some participants might even spot “mermaids” and other costumed characters swaying beneath the waves, adding visual excitement to the one-of-a-kind conservation concert.

So what does the music sound like? Divers and snorkelers describe it as clear and ethereal, seemingly absorbed through their entire bodies instead of just their ears.

And while Bill generally includes a few whale songs on his playlist, the broadcast has never attracted any whales. Smaller fish, though, appear to like the music — divers often report seeing them moving to the beat.

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