The vibrant coral reef in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary comes alive one day each year with the sound of music, including the Beatles’ Octopus Garden, Medwyn Goodall’s Dolphin Dreams and Barefoot Man’s rendition of Barracuda.
“Sometimes we include the theme to Jaws,” said U.S. 1 Radio news director Bill Becker, who co-founded the Underwater Music Festival with dentist Fred Troxel.
The playlist for the 30th wet and wacky annual concert, held July 12, was as eclectic as the marine life.
“When I first heard about this Underwater Music Festival, I said: ‘How can this happen?’ ” said Uli Clef, publisher of the German magazine Reise Genuss (“Enjoy Travel” in English). “So here I am to see how it works. I’m quite surprised, really surprised, we are so far away from the coastline.”
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The surreal event takes place about five nautical miles off Big Pine Key, which is 25 miles from Key West. And after three decades, it still attracts hundreds of divers and snorkelers who come to see Mother Nature’s beautiful creation while swaying to man-made tunes pumped into the usually silent world by Lubell Labs’ pioneering underwater speakers.
The festival is a huge hit for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, which garners media coverage all over the world by providing offbeat photographs and video of mermaids and other costumed divers pretending to play cleverly crafted instruments such as the Great White Harp, Fluke-a-lele and Harmoni-Crab.
“A lot of news stations like to carry it as the last little quirky piece of news, and it seems to work,” Becker said.
This year about 50 boats, some privately owned and others commercially operated by dive companies, took part. They tied up to mooring balls or other boats to protect the fragile reef from anchors.
Most of the divers and snorkelers were not close enough to see the underwater performance (staged primarily for the media) of this year’s mermaid and four of the Gilligan’s Island castaways — Gilligan, Mary Ann, Ginger and Thurston Howell III.
While anyone close enough could watch the group pretend to play instruments with the energy of a Kiss performance, visibility quickly deteriorated as flapping flippers from the castaways and photographers stirred up the sand on the seafloor.
But most at Looe Key were able to hear the music, which was broadcast on U.S. 1 radio and fed to underwater speakers dropped from seven boats spread out over the reef. For first-timers, it was surprising to hear how clear and loud the music was under the water. Becker pointed out that sound travels about 5,000 feet per second in water compared to about 1,000 feet per second in air.
The idea was conceived in 1984, when Becker was president of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce and Troxel was a new member of the Monroe County Fine Arts Council.
The Keys were putting on a countywide arts festival, and the two friends and dive buddies were trying to figure out what event the Big Pine Key area could host. “We didn’t have a theater, but we had the reef,” Becker said.
They contacted Alan Lubell, who agreed to lend them a few specialized underwater speakers. The friends enlisted dive boats in the area and got permission to hold the event in the Looe Key Sanctuary, which is only about five square miles and thus nicknamed the Postage Stamp Sanctuary.
Sanctuary supervisors saw it as a way to get out conservation messages such as, “Do not touch the coral” and “Be careful where you anchor.” It was in the years before mooring buoys were put in place, Becker said.
The conservation messages have continued. About every 15 minutes, one was broadcast during the latest marine concert.
The first festival was held in January 1985.
To create the underwater sounds for the music recording on reel-to-reel tape, Becker and Troxel took turns lying on their backs on the floor of the radio studio and gargling water in their mouths.
“We had a ball doing it,” Becker said.
They learned a lot from that first festival, and decided to move it to later in the year, when the water was guaranteed to be warm. They also had learned to be picky about which dive boats were given use of the speakers. One captain had decided he didn’t like the nautical-themed playlist and switched to a country and western station.
“We never gave him another speaker,” Becker said.
While the water was warmer for the second underwater festival, in May 1986, the weather was less cooperative. Miami Herald reporter Susan Ornstein began her account: “My co-worker Rosemary Harold was supposed to have written this story, but she’s lying on the bottom of the boat anchored here at beautiful Looe Key. I’m staring fervently at the horizon and shoving popcorn in my mouth because the first mate says eating staves off seasickness. There is talk of mutiny on the Looe Key Diver.”
Becker laughed when he recalled the story: “The headline was something like ‘Underwater Music Festival Marred by Waves of Nausea.’ ”
Fortunately for the 30th concert on July 12, there were no four-foot seas. There was some chop, but no one was ready to declare mutiny on the media-designated boat: the Holiday Princess, operated by Strike Zone Charters.
It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the speakers definitely were working better than they apparently were for that second festival, when a diver said that “kicking” them led to a better performance.
Past themes have included “Salute to the Rolling Stone Crabs,” with Mick Jawfish playing Jumping Jack Fish and Honky Conch Woman.
This year the theme was “Diving with the Stars.” The four-hour concert began with Under the Sea, part of the Little Mermaid soundtrack, and ended with Phil Collins’ Take Me Home.
In between, Samantha Langdale, owner of the Key West bar Krawl on Duval, squeezed into the pink mermaid costume and was able to maneuver gracefully through the water while breathing from a hookah rig that pumped in air through a tube connected to a compressor on the boat.
The Gilligan’s Island castaways wore scuba gear while entertaining with work-of-art instruments created by Keys sculptor and metalsmith August Powers.
In 2003, Powers made his first such creation: the French Angel Horn. On the dock, he showed off about 10 of his 20 instruments, including his 2014 contribution.
“You take a bluefish, an electric guitar and the Blues Brothers, kind of mix it up, and you come up with the Belushi Blues Fish,” he said.
His creations are mostly made from rolls of copper that he hand-cuts with tin snips and hammers into life. It took him three years to figure out how to make his Great White Harp.
Only the Conch Shell makes real sounds, which one man demonstrated from the deck of the Holiday Princess.
One year, Ludwig Drums donated a set. But three days before an entire band was going to operate from the sea floor, the sanctuary brass notified Becker that a permit was needed.
“So what we did was give each diver a drum and we had this procession, like a little parade through the water, and you could hear the drums under water,” he said.
“We made the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Ludwig loved it. And we gave the reconditioned drums to Sugarloaf [Elementary] School for its music program.”
Another year, there was a wardrobe malfunction, when a twenty-something wannabe diva with a couple of albums to her credit decided to jump into the water wearing a short dress and no undergarments.
“I was in the water snorkeling and wondered how somebody could lose their bathing suit bottoms while jumping in feet first,” Becker said. “Then I realized there are kids in the water.”