Imagine you’re planning your beach vacation itinerary. Build a sandcastle: check. Bike to the ice cream shop for a frozen treat: check. Soak up some sun from your beach chair: check and check. Visit a museum: wait, what? Okay, but now imagine that to get to that museum, you need a sense of adventure, a love of the gulf, a fascination of marine life, and SCUBA gear. All of a sudden, a day at the museum has taken on a whole new meaning. Enter the Underwater Museum of Art (UMA), located in South Walton County, just a quick two-minute drive down 30A to Grayton Beach. It’s the first of its kind in the country, and since its inception, it has been making waves in the news around the world.
In recent years, thoughtful attention has been paid to the restoration and preservation of the area’s beaches and marine life, including the foundation of the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA), a group dedicated to the development and maintenance of an artificial reef system that supports a thriving ecosystem and provides new opportunities for divers, snorkelers, fishermen and researchers. When local artist Allison Wickey approached the Cultural Arts Alliance (CAA) of Walton County with the idea of an underwater museum, a natural partnership with the CAA, SWARA, and a group of local artists was formed.
“I presented the idea of an underwater sculpture museum to the CAA and SWARA after seeing the work of Jason Taylor in underwater installations around the world, truly inspiring,” Wickey says. I also serve as board president of the CAA so I have been very hands on every step of the way.”
The Underwater Museum of Art — which opened on June 25 of this year — is settled 0.7 miles off the shore of Grayton Beach, 58 feet below the surface. Visitors are given the opportunity to pair their love of the arts with a spirit of adventure, and partner their appreciation for the gulf and its inhabitants with the desire for truly unique experiences. Rather than a traditional museum (a quiet-as-a-library stuffy building, stagnant and sleepy), the Underwater Museum is ever-evolving as different marine life make their homes in and among the seven sculptures, the floor of the museum changing with the tide, and different and unusual creatures passing through to appreciate these new additions to their habitats.
“Immersing yourself in the beauty of the gulf’s clear water, white sand and marine life while cruising among larger-than-life sculptures is something you will never forget,” Wickey says.
Walt Hartley, who serves on the SWARA Board of Directors, has spent a good amount of time in and around the museum, capturing photos and videos of the progress from day one. He says, “Think of a small art gallery with a secret location (don’t worry, the coordinates are published on the UMA website). You and some friends plan a trip out there, carefully anchor the boat, don your SCUBA gear and roll over the side. It’s a nice day out, warm water, and thin rays of sunlight are shining down through the clear water. You still can’t see the museum as you begin to descend. You’re looking around, scanning the seemingly endless blue-green surrounding you, trying to make out the bottom … and all of a sudden, like something out of a SpongeBob cartoon, a large shiny pineapple materializes up ahead … and then you see a humongous skull just beyond it. Turn around, and there’s a giant metal octopus you didn’t notice before, looming with its tentacles up.”
The museum is a truly unique place, and just another exceptional attribute of this little corner of the world. And while there is some effort to the experience, the payoff is extraordinary. Hartley says, “The three-dimensional aspect of viewing and studying each piece adds significantly to the experience — there are no ropes, no gates; there’s not even an entry fee. And the whole UMA site is already covered in fish. Certain species appear to prefer certain sculptures, which makes it almost like visiting an aquarium at the same time.”
For more information or to make plans to visit the UMA, visit umafl.org. The museum will be ever-evolving, both with the addition of new art pieces and the marine life who makes their homes in and among the art. What other museum can say that about its exhibits?