Mermaids Megan Brandenburg, or “Pearl,” and Tammy Milner, or “Wave” hold signs to encourage social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

Mermaids and music delighted divers beneath the waters at Looe Key Reef for the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival on July 11.  

The annual event saw mermaids positioned along the reef in a sandy patch where they posed for photos, held up ‘Wear a mask’ and ‘Wash your hands’ signs and played musical instruments. Waterproof speakers were placed underneath boats to provide divers with oceanic tunes, like Jimmy Buffett’s “Fins” and “Under the Sea,” from the “Little Mermaid.” 

Mermaid Lauren Lapham, or “Coral,” swims beneath the surface during the annual Underwater Music Festival at Looe Key Reef. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

Formed in the early ’80s, the one-of-a-kind festival bringing music and mermaids raises awareness on ways to protect the reefs and educate the public. The event was coordinated by Charles F. Troxel, a former county Fine Arts Council member and current dentist, and Bill Becker, former president of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce and U.S. 1 Radio news director who’s set to retire. Becker, who provided the playlist during the event, said it all started when Troxel received underwater speakers loaned by the manufacturer Lubell, out of Columbus, Ohio.

From left, Megan Brandenburg, Tammy Milner, Lauren Lapham and Josh Matalus. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

“The event we did, we thought we’d do it once. We did it in January, and it was such a success that people said let’s do it all the time,” Becker said. “I said ‘why not?’ We’ve worked with the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce and they’ve taken a lot of the lead in the whole thing too.”

Becker said Troxel and he never dreamed that the event would be continuing some 36 years later, let alone the sheer attention and popularity it garnered since the beginning. More than anything, Becker said the event brings an important environmental message. 

Diver John Reinbott takes some time to photograph coral on Looe Key during the Underwater Music Festival. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

“We work very closely with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. We have public service announcements just about every 15 minutes between the music. The message is about reef protection, the mooring buoys, about running aground and touching coral, where the trash goes into the water and discharges. We try to get people to listen. We figure we have a captive audience under water.”

As for the event’s location, Becker said Looe Key is one of the better reef formations in the Keys. Located some 5.5 nautical miles south of Ramrod Key, Looe Key Reef is a popular dive destination for new and experienced divers alike. A spur-and-groove reef, it’s seen its troubles from the devastating stony coral tissue loss disease.

Divers swim through the spur-and-groove Looe Key Reef. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

“It is still a wonderful dive spot. There’s a lot of different kinds of fish out there,” Becker said. 

With Becker and Troxel nearing retirement, the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce and David Turner, executive director, have stepped forward to carry the unique underwater music fest forward. 

“What makes this event so special is the fact that it’s all about conservation of the reef,” he said. “With the condition of the reef, we work with the National Marine Sanctuary to make sure we do everything correct in the way of promoting growth of the reef and protecting it in any way we can. We just want to make sure everyone understands the event is all about conservation of the reef and nothing else.”

Not only did divers spot mermaids, but they also witnessed two eagle rays and a reef shark during their swim underneath.

Waterproof speakers are placed into the water to provide four hours of oceanic tunes for divers and mermaids. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly
Mermaid Megan Brandenburg, or “Pearl,” sits in a sandy patch as she plays the guitar. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly
Mermaids Tammy Milner and Megan Brandenburg play with a flower underwater. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

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