Story by Josie Koler
Photos Kurt Schaeffer, Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center
The concept to submerge a symbol of Christ in the water began whirling around the head of the famed Italian diver Duilio Mercante back in the 1950’s. He wanted the statue created out of bronze and submersed in the Mediterranean Sea. Bronze scraps poured in from around the globe including a bronze medal from the Pope.
Italian artist Guido Galletti melted the metals together.
In 1954, the creation was lowered ceremoniously into San Fruttuoso Bay off the coast of Portofino, Italy.
In the early 60’s Galletti cast a duplicate. This statue was a gift from the Italian dive gear manufacturer Egidio Cressi to the Underwater Society of America’s. It “landed” on Chicago’s Navy Pier on August 6, 1962, and was sunk in the waters in Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, in 1966.
Today, the swim remains spiritual for divers around the world.
The Weekly Newspapers jumped on board of one of three, packed dive boats at Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center to sneak a swim around the attraction.
“His arms are stretched out, extending his hands. You’re going to want to grab on to them,” predicts Kurt Schaefer, Training Director and General Manager. “Don’t. You’ll be screaming for salvation. They’re covered in fire coral.”
Yikes. Good warning from the authoritative man in charge of this expedition.
“The statue is straight ahead from the boat, under the buoy. You’ll have time to wind your way around the reef. The coral formation zigzags. Be back on the boat in an hour from now,” Schaefer is firm.
“Who’s ready?” He asks the boatload of divers.
We line up and stride into the water.
The ocean is as flat as an iguana trying to cross US 1, and the initial plan to pray for relief from seasickness isn’t necessary. Original Formula Dramamine thrown back with Saltines and some Seagram’s Ginger Ale are saving this sailor. Sound advice heeded from a Boondocks bartender.
Our group swims towards “The Christ”, many of us propelled, fittingly with Cressi fins.
In moments, the arresting artwork is towering above our masked eyes.
An Italian Aria swims in my mind and I bow my head in prayer.
“The statute was formally dedicated in July of 1966 at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park,” recalls Captain Slate, who is quick to say, if someone wants to know something about diving, he’s your source, not the internet!
Duilio Mercante was on hand to recite these words, “He will descend in the green silent depth of the sea and remain there to protect the living. The dead shall no longer be lonely. The shadows of all who lost their lives in the sea shall be present.”
“The words apply to the hundreds of Spanish sailors and conquistadors lost when the Flota Galleons were smashed against the Florida Keys,” Captain Slate shares his knowledge.
The words can also apply to the 40 ashes of people, Slate personally has buried at sea, tailoring the eulogy with funeral scripture from the bible and information given to him by relatives.
Refreshingly, he’s also married 35 couples in 31 years at the base.
“The largest underwater wedding was done on Halloween with everyone wearing a costume. I was a big bunny and 110 divers and I re-won the largest underwater wedding for Guinness.”
I struck a final pose over the magnificent statue before gliding off on the heel of my Cressi’s, having newfound appreciation for those who make the underwater world a place to play, ponder, and pray.
The Weekly Newspapers’ Josie Koler takes in the 11×11 statue. The foundation the Christ sets on, on dry land, weighs 42,000 pounds.
Christ of the Abyss
Many divers see The Christ in Key Largo, and then plan to make a pilgrimage to dive the original, situated in the green waters of the Mediterranean. You can see why. Just go to keysweekly.com and click on the Cristo deglie Abissi Portofino Video Portal. The production was made in 2006 by the Abyss Diving Service Rapallo, and is a wildly powerful presentation, which captures the initial dream Duilio had to submerge a spiritual symbol of God in the sea.