Divers and snorkelers can explore part of the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef Saturday, July 7, while rocking to a unique sub-sea concert that promotes reef protection. (Yes, a concert — and it’s unlike any other dive or snorkel experience on the planet.)

Looe Key Reef

The one-of-a-kind festival takes place at Looe Key Reef, an area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary about 6 miles south of Big Pine Key.

It’s called the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, and it takes place each year at Looe Key Reef — an area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary about 6 miles south of Big Pine Key. The sanctuary, by the way, is an environmental blessing that protects the waters surrounding the entire Keys island chain.

And the concert? It’s staged by Keys radio station US1 104.1 FM and set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The music is designed to enhance the underwater experience for divers discovering the Keys’ fantastic realm of tropical fish, coral formations and other marine life.

“The Underwater Music Festival is a way to celebrate the coral reef, and we celebrate it by looking for a balance between protection of the reef and public enjoyment,” said festival co-founder Bill Becker of US1 Radio. “The more people realize what’s down there and enjoy it, the more they’re likely to protect it.”

And divers and snorkelers who take part really DO hear music underwater. Water-themed selections ranging from the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Jimmy Buffett’s “Fins” to the themes from “Gilligan’s Island” and “Titanic” (!) are broadcast on US1, and piped beneath the waves by special speakers suspended under boats positioned at the reef.

mermaid at Underwater Music Festival

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

So what does the music sound like?

“It has a very ethereal sound — it seems to come from all directions,” explained Bill. “The reason is that sound travels five times faster in water than in air, so it reaches both of your ears almost instantaneously, which gives it a very much of a surrounding sound.”

Some divers who participate in the underwater adventure wear costumes, portraying everything from mermaids to rock stars.

A few even pretend to play instruments such as a “baratuba” sculpted by Florida Keys artist August Powers — whose other creations range from a “trom-bonefish” to a “clambourine.” Born in August’s imagination and then carefully crafted, each instrument playfully incorporates the characteristics of an undersea creature.

The primary purpose of the annual festival, of course, is to encourage preservation of the Keys’ rich coral reef ecosystem. The broadcast incorporates diver-awareness announcements emphasizing ways to enjoy the reef while minimizing environmental impacts.

“I’ve never had a snorkeling experience like this,” marveled Gail Coad while participating in a previous year’s festival. “It’s just like a magic show with the different beautiful tropical fish.”

Costumed divers Underwater Music Festival

A yellowtail snapper swims by participants pretending to play instruments sculpted by local artist August Powers at the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

According to Bill Becker, the sub-sea songfest began in 1985 as a quirky way to make the already wonderful Keys underwater experience even better. But it’s not just divers and snorkelers who appear to appreciate the musically enhanced environment.

“The fish seemed to enjoy the music as much as I did,” said Gail. “They almost were dancing in unison to the melody.”

If you’re a diver or snorkeler and want to “immerse yourself” in the festival, just reserve space on a boat run by a Lower Keys dive operator.

“This is the only living coral reef off the coast of the continental United States that you can drive to,” advised Bill. “Why wouldn’t you want to join in the fun, get in the water and enjoy this coral reef?”