Meet the pride of the Panhandle: the first underwater sculpture garden.
The next time you get an itch for art, slip on your flippers, grab an oxygen tank, and head to Grayton Beach in South Walton to experience the Underwater Museum of Art, the first underwater sculpture garden in the U.S. The permanent exhibit and marine life habitat is home to jury-selected works of large-scale, sunken art. Over time fish and other sea critters turn these sculptures into living reefs making them ideal spots for divers seeking a unique twist on open water diving. Sculptures on display range from a giant, SpongeBob approved pineapple to an over six-feet-tall diamond ring. While the little known attraction marries culture, marine habitats, and diver intrigue, it’s also exclusive to South Walton, making it a must-see stop between long stints of tanning under the rays of Floridian sun.
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Tour the Neighborhood
Known for its artistic side and quirky residents, it is only appropriate that Grayton Beach is the home for the Underwater Museum of Art. Sandy roads pass through pastel-perfect, picket-fenced homes, often sprinkled with yard accouterments, and inhabited by local artists, chefs, and musicians. The town’s unofficial slogan is “nice dogs; strange people,” which appears on everything from neat street art-covered fences—known as the Grayt Wall of Art—to casual t-shirts.
Discover the Museum
The Underwater Museum of Art is the result of several area conservation and tourism groups recognizing the need for protecting habitats of today for curious explorers of tomorrow. Those groups include Visit South Walton, the Cultural Arts Alliance (CAA) of Walton County, and the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA). The museum opened in 2018 with just seven sculptures, but 2019 brought the addition of twelve more bringing the total number of sculptures to 19 dive-worthy shapes.
See the Deployment
Structures are sunken in partnership between CCA and SWARA. Through pinpoint accuracy, the hand-selected sculptures are floated by barges and cranes equipped with GPS to their final destination before being deployed into the Gulf to a near 60-foot resting place. Impressively, each sculpture lands about 18 inches within its intended location. Contributing artists are asked to ensure their pieces weigh no more than 2,500 pounds. Once received by the museum team, a base between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds is built to support the structure and make sure it doesn’t shift during hurricanes.
Since the museum is underwater, it is only accessible by boat. To reach the center sculpture, known as the SWARA Skull by Vince Tatum—complete with eye sockets in the shape of Southern Stingrays—captains should steer towards N 30*18.754 W 086*09 33.722. Those wishing to dive at the site can either charter a boat themselves, or locate an area scuba company for a tour. For those of us not as skippy on coordinates, the site is a little over a mile from the state park’s beach walkover.
If diving isn’t your forte, some charter companies also offer snorkeling around the museum. Since it’s built primarily as a SCUBA site and marine habitat, you won’t be able to get up close and personal with the fish, but on a clear day, you will be able to see the works from the surface. Seeking a more intimate experience? There is a snorkel reef just off of the Grayton Beach coast. It’s known as Turtle Reef (which when captured by drone photography is actually in the shape of a turtle) and at just 200 yards from shore, is best accessed by kayak or paddleboard.
Observe the Art
As you swim from sculpture to sculpture, know what you’re looking at. National artists, as well as local artists such as painter and found artist Rachel Herring, contributed to the installation. Herring, in fact, has not one but two sculptures on display in the depths of the Gulf. Sculptures were inspired by everything from people to objects. One 2018 installation, JYC’s Dream by Kevin Reilly, captures Jacques Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung and includes a diver’s head and mouthpiece as well as a trail of ascending bubbles. El Plastico by George Sabra is ironically the representation of a life-size plastic bottle. It symbolizes an item generally known for causing harm as instead providing protected shelter.
Meet the Locals
Limestone, steel, and prefabricated concrete are used to create the sculptures. These materials are non-toxic, so they will not harm their surroundings. They will, however, foster marine life habitats. Limestone, in fact, is prehistoric coral, so it has a natural PH balance that makes it suitable for new coral to thrive.
When creating their pieces, the artists considered the species they hoped would live within their structures, promising a slew of visitors beyond divers themselves. Evelyn Tickle, the creator of Concrete Rope Reef Spheres, used her own concrete mixture that mirrors the properties of oyster shells to create her sculpture. Even further, the twisting and turning ropes in her work create small pockets where juvenile oysters can attach and grow. Other wildlife that inhabits the reefs and surrounding beaches include octopus, stingray, sea urchin, sea turtle and a few dozen species of fish. Between the astounding art and the plentiful marine life, this subaqueous experience is sure to be memorable.