Exploring the watery depths of the ocean is already an unforgettable experience, but now swimmers off the coast of northwest Florida can view incredible art while they're submerged below seas.
That's because the first underwater museum in the United States has officially opened. The Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) is a fascinating subaquatic destination that's home to incredible sculptures and marine wildlife.
Located off the coast of Grayton Beach State Park in South Walton, Florida, the museum displays seven prominent sculptures -- including a giant skull by artist Vince Tatum and an octopus by Allison Wickey, the mastermind behind the museum.
From dream to reality
Wickey said she was inspired to propose the project to the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County after watching the creation of artificial reefs.
The result was a collaboration between the alliance's Art in Public Spaces Program and the South Walton Artificial Reef Association.
"I just presented it thinking they would be like, 'that's cool but we could never do that.' It was totally out of left field," she explains.
Instead, the response was enthusiastic. Now the museum is a reality, joining the ranks of the celebrated Museo Subacuático de Arte in Cancun and Europe's first underwater museum, the Museo Atlántico Lanzarote.
The South Walton Artificial Reef Association advised the UMA on how to ensure the sculptures complement, not damage, the seascape.
"We gave them the perimeters for what's permissible, material-wise, size-wise for the sculptors to design and create their reefs so they would be in compliance with the permits," Andy McAlexander, the association's board president tells CNN Travel. "And then we were responsible of the deployment of the sculptures that were selected."
McAlexander's team also ensured none of the sculptures were made of plastics -- or contained pollutants and toxins.
"It has to be clean materials that are environmentally sustainable," he says.
McAlexander wasn't immediately persuaded by the idea of an underwater museum.
"I've never really been big into the arts," he says. "So I just didn't think it was going to take off in the way it has, and I'm just completely baffled by the success of the project, by the popularity of it.
"It seems that it's touched on so many lives and I'm here to say, I was dead wrong and after diving the museum twice my perspective has completely changed."
"It's been wildly inspirational for me personally to be a part of something that's touched so many people," he adds.
Under the sea
The underwater museum is free entry, but visitors will have to dive down first.
It's located about 0.7 miles from the coast of Grayton Beach State Park. The coordinates for the central sculpture -- the skull -- are Latitude N 30 18.754, Longitude W 86 09.522.
"The feel, the experience is vastly different in diving rather than walking through a museum as we typically do," says McAlexander.
The team are pleased that the museum is shining a spotlight on Walton County.
"I think it's unexpected and gives people another dimension of what our area represents, in terms of how many artists there are and creative people and just innovation that's going on in this tiny beach town," says Wickey, who is now board president of the CAA.
She hopes the exhibit will shine a light on the importance of the preserving the Gulf of Mexico: "We're bringing it to their intention, in a way that we couldn't really any other way," she says.
The aim is for the museum to be a permanent structure that will grow and develop. McAlexander says it could expand by up to 10 sculptures each year.
"It truly is a living, breathing, thriving museum that'll be different every time you dive, because there'll be different aquatic species present every time you dive," says McAlexander. "It fundamentally changes literally moment by moment."
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