Lonely Planet Writer

The USA's first underwater museum is opening next summer in Florida

A new museum is coming next summer to the Florida Gulf Coast – but you’ll need a SCUBA certification to see it. The Underwater Museum of Art is scheduled to open next summer and become the first permanent underwater sculpture museum in the United States.

Vince Tatum’s SWARA Skull – one of the pieces to be featured in the museum Image by Vince Tatum/UMA/TDC

The museum will be less than a mile off the coast of Grayton Beach, one of the most popular beaches in the South Walton area. The Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County commissioned seven sculptures for the first phase of the project, including an homage to Jacques Cousteau’s ‘aqualung’ that was created in collaboration with students from a local Montessori school.

These sculptures will be art, yes – but they are also part of an ongoing plan to encourage marine life in the region. More than 90% of the Gulf of Mexico is considered a “barren sand flat” environment; while the smooth, sandy bottom might be nice for swimmers, it is the equivalent of a desert and inhospitable to most marine life. Artificial reefs provide homes for fish and anchors for plants and other aquatic creatures. Each sculpture will be attached to a “grouper box,” allowing it to be carefully lowered underwater and fitted in as part of the modular artificial reef.

Scuba diver photographing Cancun’s underwater statues, Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Image by Rodrigo Friscione/Getty Images

“It’s so fresh and creative,” says Andy McAlexander, president of the nonprofit South Walton Artificial Reef Association, which has launched more than 200 artificial reef projects in 2017 alone. “We will be raising awareness of our marine ecosystems through art.” The water depth around the installations is about 50-60 feet, so in-depth exploration is best left to divers, but paddleboarders, kayakers and snorkelers will be able to benefit from the increased variety of marine life that is likely to be generated by the installations.

Though this is a first for the USA, other underwater museums, such as Mexico’s Museo Subacuático de Arte and Museo Atlantico in the Canary Islands, have successfully launched exhibits that both draw crowds and improve the environment for aquatic life.