Wet Sounds

Now that punk rock is dead and all so-called independent record labels are actually controlled by international supercorporations, underground music is as uncool as mainstream. Next big thing: underwater music.

Okay, maybe not. And frankly, the music itself is somewhat beside the point. The fact that it's being broadcast beneath the surface of the ocean (sound travels through water four times as fast as through air) is the point of the fourteenth annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

In the mid-Eighties, Bill Becker was a marine biologist working in the Keys. He shifted careers and signed on with WWUS-FM (104.7), an oldies station on Big Pine Key. "There was a Keys-wide arts festival," he recalls, "and we were looking for an event to do. We thought, 'What do we have in the lower Keys?' Which led to, 'Why not put music underwater?'"

The technology existed: An Ohio company, Lubell Labs, was already manufacturing underwater speakers primarily intended for diving communications. Lubell was eager to help at the outset and continues to provide the equipment.

"After fourteen years," Becker says dryly, "you know what works underwater." Judging by the playlist, anything suggestive of the ocean is fair game: Handel's Water Music, the Beatles' "Octopus's Garden," Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise," or, devilishly, the theme song from Jaws. This being the Keys, Jimmy Buffett tunes are apparently mandatory. Becker adds that new-age and percussion sounds are especially effective below the surface. There's even room for humor. A Caymans singer who calls himself Barefoot Man has provided retooled classics, transforming "That's Amore" into "That's a Moray."

Since seawater covers 70 percent of the planet's surface and is home to 95 percent of life, the event has its serious side. Public service announcements hyping sea sensitivity and coral reef etiquette are included during the six-hour broadcast, which is otherwise commercial-free. Working closely with officials at the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, Becker wants the festival to increase awareness of the reef's fragility and its eco importance. "We want to show how to enjoy it without damaging it," he says.

Deena Wells, director of operations for the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, offers the festival a thumbs-up. "It's a busy time in the Keys," she notes. "Lots of tourists are here who maybe don't know about reef protection -- controlling buoyancy, not standing on the coral, mooring to buoys instead of anchoring. If this increases awareness, it's going to be a good thing."

-- Greg Baker

The Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival begins at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, July 11, at Looe Key, five miles south of Big Pine Key (around mile marker 30). A boat or space on any of the many available charter boats is required; the captains know where to take you. For details call 800-872-3722.

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Greg Baker