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Divers compete in underwater pumpkin carving contest in Keys

Most pumpkin carvers don’t have to worry about the tops floating away — or the pumpkins moving just as they are about to be stabbed with a knife — but that’s the case when the Halloween art projects are done 25 feet below the sea.

“It was hard to get the knife in the right spot,” said Alia Jones, 13, of Key Largo. “And if you let the knife go, it would float away.”

But fortunately all carving weapons were retrieved and 14 pumpkins were turned into Halloween Jack-o-lanterns at the 16th annual Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest.

The audience of reef fish and a passing spotted eagle ray seemed to enjoy the action.

Last year, pumpkins that were carved into the likenesses of President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney made international news right before the big election.

This year, there were no celebrity pumpkins, but creativity was still on hand. One pumpkin featured braces made from a clothes hanger. Another had on an itty-bitty string bikini.

The contest was held on the sandy bottom, next to a coral reef known as the Horseshoe a few miles offshore of Key Largo in the Atlantic.

The pumpkin carvers, including a group from Planet SCUBA that’s located in the landlocked Arizona town of Tucson, spent about 30 minutes working on their carvings with the hope of winning the grand prize: a SCUBA trip for two.

Amy Slate said she did not come up with the idea. She had heard about a group doing the underwater carving in a lake in North Carolina and thought: “Oh, wow, what a fun thing to do.”

As far back as the 1980s, underwater pumpkin carving contests have been held in lakes in Kentucky and Ontario, Canada, and in waters off of San Diego and Seattle.

But the contest located in the heart of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, in water that is warm in October and with visibility so good that snorkelers can watch from the surface, offers a bit more cachet.

“It’s the first time I’ve been to Florida,” said pumpkin carving contestant Cassandra Kaveloh, 29 and a nurse from Tucson. “I love it.”

She was multitasking, according to her dive instructor, Eric Fairfield of Planet SCUBA. Kaveloh completed her open water dive certification by completing her last safety skills around the creation of her orange masterpiece.

Jones also completed her junior open water certification during the trip, despite being a little cold and seasick. Her mother, Nada Jones, was her instructor.

Alia Jones and Zac Rodriguez, 12, who began going for his junior open water certification as soon as he was eligible on his 10th birthday, combined to carve a pumpkin that said “I love sushi.” They cut the shape of a fish out of the pumpkin, which Zac attached to the outside of the pumpkin by stabbing a purple knife into it.

Last year Zac won with a Frankenstein inspired Jack-o-lantern.

This year, before motoring the boat toward the Horseshoe, Captain Mike Daughinitis announced to the carvers that the theme was “anything that makes me smile. And that’s hard to do today.”

The divers were told to be careful with their buoyancy and not stir up the sand too much so that underwater videographer and photographer Bob Care could get good shots for the news organizations.

A crew member dressed as a witch hovered in the water on his broomstick to make sure everyone was happy and safe.

After the carving was complete, all the divers posed for a group shot. Then they surfaced, making sure to pick up all their debris.

“We try to make sure the fish are not eating any pumpkins,” Slate said. “We don’t want to change their diets or habits.”

The divers were taken to a second spot to see a work of art that has had a permanent home in the Keys for almost half a century: the statue of Christ of the Abyss.

From there it was back to the dock for the judging by Captain Mike. He inspected all 14 pumpkins, which including looking to see what was behind one pumpkin’s bikini that was the creation of Nada Jones and Kimberly Rodriguez, the moms of Alia and Zac.

And then he announced the grand prize winner: the pumpkin with large sunglasses and braces created by mother-and-daughter team Jaqueline and Jana Vandelaar. Last year they created the cartoon character Snoopy with the message: “Vote.”

Second and third place went to two Coral Shore High School band members, Isabella Serratore, 15, and Danielle Christmas, 16. Captain Mike liked them because they made him smile.