The next time you go diving off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale, keep an eye out for mermaids. The 1000 Mermaid Artificial Reef Project is a bio-productive EcoArt project and tourist diving destination that hopes to call attention to the disappearing Florida reefs and help rebuild them. 

Underwater shot of a mermaid sculpture at the bottom of the ocean. In the background a scuba diver appears to measuring something.
What began as a vanity project for a married couple has turned into an environmental mission for a pair of artists © Ron Nash / 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project

Florida is the only state in the continental United States with extensive shallow coral reef formations near its coasts. They're expansive, making up the third-largest reef in the world. And unfortunately, they’re dying at higher rates than other iconic reefs like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef –  over 90% in recent decades. 

With the 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project, ocean lovers and body cast artists Ernest Vasquez and Sierra Rasberry hope to turn that around.

The idea for the project came when the artists were commissioned to make a sculpture of a client’s wife as a mermaid for his yacht. But when it came time for the piece to be delivered, there was no yacht to receive it. 

“I have bad news,” the couple recall their client saying. “I lost my business, I lost my boat, I lost my wife.” 

Not only that, he was sentenced to federal prison. When Vasquez inquired about what was to be done with the mermaid sculpture the client replied, “I don’t care, throw it in the ocean.” 

And that’s when the light bulb went off. 

A woman covered in plaster smiles as another pair of woman place more plaster sections on her body. In the background is a collection of shelves and artist equipment scattered about on tables.
Real-life models are used to create the underwater mermaid sculptures © Courtesy of 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project

Mermaids for the reef project are individually handcrafted out of sustainable concrete by Vasquez and Rasberry with their company Miami Body Cast, and sit on coral reef modules made by Reef Cells, which uses eco-friendly materials in reef shapes to encourage corals and other sea creatures to attach themselves. Coral Lok frag plugs allow living coral to be immediately attached to the man-made reef. 

“The Coral Loks could potentially be the key to saving the coral reefs,” says Evan Snow, Project Manager & Executive Director of the 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project. “Because the current method, they have to use a nail and a zip tie and epoxy to put the fragments back onto the ocean floor. And they can only do so many on one tank of air. This allows us to deploy more of these super corals faster, easier, with safer materials than ever before.”

After consulting with scientists, local governments and the Army Corps of Engineers, the project made its first deployment of 18 sculptures in August of 2019, the first step in creating an eco-friendly dive site that also diverts traffic away from the natural reef,  allowing it time to heal. The artificial reef also helps to promote marine wildlife, expand fishery populations and act as a natural reef would to protect the coast from destructive waves. 

Underwater shot of a pair of mermaid sculptures, one facing the camera and the other with its back to its to the camera. Both sculptures sit on an underwater shelf in the ocean.
Can these mermaid sculptures save Florida's oceans? © Ron Nash / 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project

But there’s still a ways to go, and public participation is encouraged. Casting of mermaids starts at $7,500USD. The project also accepts donations of money, resources, time and airline miles, so the 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef team can attend and present their ideas to leading reef experts at the 14th International Coral Reef Symposium in Germany this July. 

“One of our lines is, we’re using art as a problem-solver,” says Snow, who foresees being a part of this project for the rest of his life.  “And yes, we are going for 1,000 mermaids. Ten would have been so little, 100 would have been attainable. We thought 1000 was kind of like an infinite number.” 

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