Part of the world’s third-largest living coral barrier reef (the ONLY one in the continental United States) will become a music arena Saturday, July 8 — when hundreds of divers and snorkelers gather for a unique sub-sea concert.

Underwater Music Festival

Costumed characters pretend to play a sculpted conch shell and “saxophone” beneath the sea at the Underwater Music Festival. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Yes, an actual underwater concert. Now in its 33rd year, the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival takes place in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at beautiful Looe Key Reef (about six miles south of Big Pine Key).

For more than three decades, the unique “submerged songfest” has spotlighted 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,” said 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 each year, the four-hour marine musical event is staged 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 underwater via speakers suspended beneath boats above the reef. Swimming among colorful tropical fish and coral formations, participants sway to the sea-focused “soundtrack” that adds a whole new dimension to the experience.

“We play a lot of the usual stuff — the theme from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Octopus’s Garden, Yellow Submarine, a lot of Jimmy Buffett,” Bill explained. “New Age music sounds terrific underwater. We do the theme from ‘Jaws’ to keep the divers on their toes.”

Participants describe the music as sounding clear and ethereal, absorbed through their entire bodies instead of just their ears. And while Bill generally includes a few whale songs, the broadcast has never attracted any whales. (Smaller fish, though, actually seem to like the music — divers often report seeing them moving to the beat.)

“It’s the only place we know where music is put underwater for the divers, snorkelers, and marine life,” advised Bill.

Underwater Music Festival costumed characters

A mermaid and a musical duo “rock” at Looe Key Reef during a previous Underwater Music Festival. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

But fish aren’t the only creatures to be spotted underwater each year. Some divers wear costumes (in fact, it’s not unusual to glimpse a mermaid or two) and pretend to rock the reef by playing underwater musical instruments sculpted by Lower Keys artist August Powers.

The talented artist creates at least one new piece for the festival every year, always blending elements of an actual instrument and an underwater inhabitant. Standouts have included his trom-bonefish, clambourine, and “Belushi Blues Fish” — a guitar-like fish sporting a “Blues Brothers” hat and shades.

As well as enjoying the one-of-a-kind experience, music festival participants listen to diver awareness announcements that offer insights into preserving the Florida Keys’ unparalleled underwater ecosystem.

“We have a very strong environmental message,” said Bill. “We try to get divers to be aware of their impact on the coral reef so that they lessen that impact and this reef can be here for generations to come.”

And that should be music to every ocean-lover’s ears.

(Activities occur under permit within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.)