A lone diver descends 40 feet beneath Florida’s Atlantic waters. Between the shadows, something big looms into focus, so she swims closer. A lion sculpture emerges from the seabed – guarding a large gate that stands open. And as the diver swims through, she wonders at the magical world into which she has just floated.
Three miles from the coast of Key Biscayne in Miami lies the largest man-made reef to have ever been designed. But there’s something else which makes this location particularly special. That’s because it is also home to some rather unexpected inhabitants that are quite unlike the residents of any other reef in the world.
Scuba divers who dare to swim down to this deserted world will discover a great gateway which opens out onto a grand platform lined with concrete garlands and lion carvings. In the shadows beyond, seaweed-sheathed columns carry vessel-like shapes that seem to glint in the ocean’s morning glow.
Catching the light is a series of bronze plaques that appear to be attached to each colossal, crumbling column of this lost city. Every pillar and sculpture at the site seems to be etched with a collection of names and phrases. This “tribute to life on land,” as the visionaries behind this mysterious site describe it, is certainly a world first.
In its first phase, the coral-encrusted classical architecture of this man-made reef was designed to echo the lost city of Atlantis. The island described by Plato was once – so the legend goes – a utopian idyll in the Atlantic Ocean, where morality and democracy flourished under the protective eye of the god Poseidon and his son Atlas.
However, as the Atlanteans conquered more territories, their power grew to excessive heights, and morality on the island deteriorated. Before long, the island was swept under water by a surge of floods that caused it to sink into the darkest depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
And it’s not just this reef’s 44 soaring columns and eerily empty podiums that are reminiscent of the legend of Atlantis. It seems that the project’s engineers – not so dissimilar from the Atlanteans – faced a downpour of design challenges and obstacles that threatened to sink the project altogether.
The reef was first dreamed up by a diver called Gary Levine, and the project initially faced some formidable challenges. One prerequisite, for example, was that it had to be strong enough to resist a one-hundred-year storm. Explaining further, assistant state climatologist of Georgia Pam Knox told Live Science in 2009, “What it means is that every year there’s a one-in-100 chance of one of these happening.”
Category four Hurricane Andrew was the one-hundred-year storm until that time. To add to the challenge, though, Andrew was actually reassigned to category five during the reef’s design phase. As the highest possible grade, this meant that the whole engineering process had to be completely rethought before the planned 16-acre site could be approved.
Once designers could demonstrate that it had the strength to survive, the reef would then be constructed. Thanks to funding from the Neptune Society, $1.5 million was splashed out on phase one of the project, which saw the concrete columns lowered into the Atlantic waters and arranged on the seabed.
After the team had successfully proceeded through all phases of manufacture, they began work on a project which, when completed, will comprise over 5,000 columns. But hostile storms were not the only environmental force that the reef’s designers had to face while they were building the sunken city.
The reef’s man-made network of columns, carvings and concrete curvatures also had to be non-polluting. This meant that the complex had to spawn new life by attracting and preserving new species of creatures that could find solace in its shelter.
To ensure that the reef was environmentally friendly, marine biologists worked with engineers to design something that would nurture the world it was to be implanted into. This included shaping its features in the silhouettes of marine life familiar to visiting fishes like shells and starfish. And more generally, it was built in order to attract certain sea life in order to build a thriving ecosystem.
Each concrete foundation weighs at least 50 tons and contains four cylinders that drive 11 feet down into the seafloor. Anchoring the structure in place, these pipes work to minimize the reef’s movement and therefore its disruption to the life surrounding it. Furthermore, the upright frames projecting from those foundations are also designed to support the growth of corals.
Though they may look imposing, the curvatures of the reef’s grand archways actually contain tiny holes that provide prey creatures with somewhere to hide from predators. And it is because of these innovative details littering the project’s design that the man-made structure is able to help – rather than hamper – the local ecosystem.
The gates opened in 2007, and within five years experts had found as many as 56 unique fish species schooling about the reef’s sculptures. Bar jacks, sergeant majors and bluehead wrasse are among the most regular visitors, and the assortment of fish species found there is apparently going up all the time.
While sea urchins perch on the city’s many sculptures, crabs gather in the cracks of its seaweed-strung pillars. In fact, species that had been absent from the waters for quite some time have started to populate the archways and podiums found here.
“We’re seeing animals that we haven’t seen before. Ones that have been missing for a long time,” co-founder and operations director Jim Hutslar told the Associated Press in 2018. “We actually found a long spine sea urchin that was considered extinct in the Caribbean Sea.”
As of 2012 the site housed as many as 195 colonies of coral – crowning it the most bountiful artificial and natural reef in southern Florida. More than this though, the construction is now not only considered to be a genuine coral reef, it also boasts 14 different types of reef-building coral which have entered into the ecosystem.
In fact, the reef has transformed the area’s barren seafloor into a submarine wilderness abundant with new species. Nowadays, teams of marine biologists, researchers and ecologists from across the world visit the site. But this modern-day Atlantis has more than just an abundant array of nature.
You see, the site – which is called the Neptune Memorial Reef – also holds another fascinating secret. It’s actually home to around 1,500 deceased people, whose remains lie among the sculptures of this underwater city.
Secured to the statues and sculptures of the Neptune Memorial Reef are a series of plaques memorializing loved ones. The tablets – of which there will be more than 250,000 once the project is finished – range from $1,500 to $8,000, depending on their size, shape and position on the reef.
The more expensive epitaphs are shaped into creatures that are natively found in the coral habitat and will therefore make familiar neighbors to the visiting life – like stingrays, sea turtles and starfish. These are then fasted on to the reef’s fixtures.
But the Neptune Memorial Reef goes far beyond a mere plaque and epitaph to enshrine the memory of the deceased. The departed are also laid to rest at the reef itself among the bountiful fish and fauna.
But if you thought that the individuals were simply buried between the sands or their ashes scattered among the waves, you might want to think again. The brains behind the Neptune Memorial Reef also thought up some pretty unusual, eco-friendly burial techniques.
According to Jim Hustlar – the operations director – people can have their cremated remains put into a concrete mix that is used to build the reef’s features. It’s not just that plaques are affixed to stately balusters then, but cremated remains are actually cast into the structures and they become features of the reef itself.
The Neptune Memorial Reef is a network of concrete roads that come together at a soaring urn centerpiece. These pathways were engineered with a series of platforms upon which aquatic animal features made of cremated ashes and non-porous concrete sit. And the specific shape of each figure is apparently selected by the late individuals themselves.
According to Atlas Obscura, one of the reef’s residents is Bert Kilbride, who once made it into the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest scuba diver. His column sits at the top of the gate entrance to the expanse of dedicated cremation features and sculptures that lie beyond.
According to Neptune Memorial Reef’s official website, the first intended burial on the site was for a boy named Daniel Restrepo. After he was shot in a drive-by at just 13 years old, the boy spent ten years retraining himself to walk and talk before he tragically passed away. Restrepo’s ashes were used to create a complete column from which there would be space for his family to make a further 13 additions to the reef in the future.
Old lives spawn new ones in this special location. Reef-building coral wraps itself round frames built from cremation ashes, and new fish species stow away in the shadows of columns created from their remains. The ashes of loved ones are cemented into structures that can preserve and protect new beings, while also giving sea-lovers a concrete and tangible legacy among the deep.
On its official website, the Neptune Memorial Reef said that it is “proud to provide this green… alternative to a traditional burial, offering a unique and ecologically sensitive memorial following cremation.” More than this, though, the special underwater site offers the families of its members a unique place to pay their respects.
Relatives can pay a visit to their deceased family and friends via boat or a snorkel excursion. The Neptune Memorial Reef’s website said, “Some family members actually become dive certified, enabling them to visit the site, to see their loved ones and to monitor the reef’s growth.”
After Edith Hink died in 2008 at the age of 86, her ashes were cast into one of the reef’s concrete pillars. As keen scuba divers, Edith’s close family frequently dive down to the reef to visit her. Edith’s son, John Hink, told the Miami Herald in 2018, “It is a stunningly beautiful, uplifting, meditative place.”
For many families, the underwater space offers an exclusive place to reflect and reconnect with the deceased. Having asked to be buried at the Neptune Memorial Reef prior to their deaths, Linda and Buel Payne’s plaques were installed in 2018. Their son told The Associated Press that year, “I really didn’t get it when [my mom] was telling me about it and the more and more I think about it, it’s really a nice, peaceful spot for your last resting place.”
Daniel Payne’s brother Will, meanwhile, was just as happy about his parents’ resting place. He offered his own thoughts, telling the publication, “It’s just amazing. It’s so peaceful. If there is a heaven, that would be it for them.”
And as we mentioned earlier, it’s not just individuals who enjoy the stunning sights of the Neptune Memorial Reef. Marine biologists, researchers and recreational divers all take to the depths of the Atlantic to explore this hidden graveyard.
Melissa Pitalo, market director for SCI – North America’s biggest funeral service and owner of the reef – talked to Globe Newswire about what made the site so special. She told the publication in 2018, “For years now, Neptune Memorial Reef has served as a unique destination for many, as an underwater memorial for loved ones, world-class dive site and marine ecology sanctuary.”
As both a fascinating site for curious divers and an enchanting resting place where relatives can reconnect with loved ones, the Neptune Memorial Reef is unquestionably one of a kind. And for whatever reason it is visited, the submarine mausoleum – with its crumbling columns and algae-engulfed tombs – is certainly atmospheric.
A sunken shrine for past life and a protective sanctuary for the new, the Neptune Memorial Reef offers a tribute to life like no other. By allowing the departed to build a brand-new reef that spawns new species while it protects the past life locked within it, this displaced Atlantis is a haven for new life.
Naturally, the Neptune Memorial Park has made its way into the hearts of many. Vicki Hink – whose mother-in-law Edith is buried there – recalled to the Miami Herald a conversation that she’d had with her late relative. Vicki explained, “We told her, ‘Dolphins will be swimming around you,’ and she said, ‘That’s where I want to be.’ And we said, ‘We’ll join you, eventually.’”