Arts & Culture

In the Florida Keys, the World’s Only Underwater Concert Sings Again

On July 11, swim and sing with the fish—or listen at home

Photo: Bob Care/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

Nicole Pacha, left, and Sarah Brunner perform at the Underwater Music Festival in 2016.

Fish are not self-conscious. As soon as Jimmy Buffett’s “Fins” begins to play beneath the surface of the Atlantic, they dance like no one’s watching, whole schools of them swaying left and right to the chorus as if they’ve anticipated the moment all year. And perhaps they have. 

Each summer—and this July 11—Florida’s Looe Key Reef plays host to the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, the only submerged songfest in the world. Charter boats at this year’s fest will limit occupancy and undergo rigorous sanitation efforts to keep guests safe. Keys radio station US1 Radio will also stream the concert for those who’d prefer to listen from home.  

photo: Frazier Nivens/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO
Nichole Blackburn, left, and Vaughn Manthe, right, in costume in 2018.

For people diving in, the experience is as incomparable as the Keys themselves. While underwater speakers pipe “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, the marine life joins in the revelry. “They truly move to the groove,” says Julie Botteri, a Marathon resident who has attended the festival since 2011. Divers and snorkelers take their boats (or hop on charters) to this half-mile-long reef off the shores of Big Pine Key, many of them wearing costumes and carrying underwater “instruments.” 

There are pirates who play barratubas, sharks that tap blowfish oboes, and mermaids who strum fishbone guitars. “I try to stay with the beat,” says Mariah Reynolds, an Islamorada-based professional mermaid who has played several instruments in the festival the last three years. “I even move my tail with the rhythm.”

photo: Bob Care/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO
Mariah Reynolds pretends to play an artist’s interpretation of a trombone in 2019.

The songs sound different in the ocean than they do on land: Sound travels faster in water, so the music seems to originate in your head, not from an external source. In between the Beatles’ “Octopus Garden” and the theme song from Jaws, short announcements remind participants of the coral barrier reef’s importance (it’s the only living one in North America), as well as underwater etiquette. Rule one: The fish have the right of way. Especially when they’re dancing.