Hidden On South Florida’s Ocean Floor Is An Eerie Submarine City For The Dead

A lone diver descends 40 feet beneath Florida’s Atlantic waters. As the diver swims into the shadows, a lion sculpture emerges from the seabed – guarding a towering gateway into the abyss. Suddenly, a flash of sun ignites the gloomy waters before her, and a spectacle reveals itself. Rows of grand arches and coral-encrusted carvings form a sprawling subterranean metropolis. It’s a magnificent sight – and an unsettling one, too. After all, this sunken city isn’t a place for the living… It was built for the dead.

Found on the Atlantic seabed three miles from the coast of Key Biscayne in Miami, the submerged site is home to swathes of marine animals. But it’s not just sea creatures that live there. No, there’s something else that makes this location particularly special. That’s because it’s also home to some eerie inhabitants who are quite unlike the residents of any other reef in the world.

So, what exactly might scuba divers find should they dare to swim down to this deserted world? Well, an imposing gateway leads to a grand platform lined with concrete garlands and lion carvings. In the shadows beyond, seaweed-sheathed columns carry vessel-like shapes that seem to glint in the ocean’s morning glow.

And the sunken site’s waters are alive with activity. As many as 56 unique fish species are known to school about its grand structures. Bar jacks, sergeant majors and bluehead wrasse are among the most regular visitors, and the assortment of sea creatures found there is apparently going up all the time.

While sea urchins perch on the city’s many sculptures, crabs gather in the cracks of its seaweed-strung pillars. In fact, species that had been absent from Florida’s waters for quite some time have started to populate the sunken site’s many archways and podiums. And different types of marine colonies thrive there, too.

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As of 2012, the city housed as many as 195 colonies of coral – crowning it one of the most bountiful reefs in southern Florida. And the submerged metropolis also boasts 14 different types of reef-building coral. The area’s rich ecosystem, it seems, will continue to thrive for quite some time yet.

The area’s aquatic community is actually so bountiful that teams of marine biologists, researchers and ecologists from across the world visit the site. But divers aren’t drawn to the area exclusively due to its marine life. After all, the sunken city’s residents aren’t all creatures of the sea. Nor are they all alive. No, this underwater metropolis hides an unsettling secret.

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Divers to the site won’t have to spend long there before noticing its eerie side. Dozens of curious plaques are attached to the colossal, crumbling columns of this lost city. Every pillar and sculpture seems to be etched with phrases and diagrams. The mysterious metropolis could easily be mistaken for Atlantis, Heracleion or any of the world’s many doomed, drowned towns.

The coral-encrusted classical architecture of the reef, in particular, echoes the fabled lost city of Atlantis. The island described by the Greek philosopher Plato was once – so the legend goes – a utopian idyll in the Atlantic Ocean. Morality and democracy supposedly flourished there under the protective eye of the god Poseidon and his son Atlas.

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However, as the Atlanteans conquered more territories, their power grew to excessive heights, and morality on the island deteriorated. Before long, the island was swept underwater by a surge of floods that caused it to sink into the darkest depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Where exactly, nobody knows. Unless, of course, the ancient city is lurking just off the coast of Miami…

But alas, the search for Atlantis doesn’t end in Florida. While this sunken Sunshine State metropolis boasts soaring columns and podiums reminiscent of the legendary lost city, the site is actually a 21st-century construction. That said, its engineers – not so dissimilar from the Atlanteans – faced a downpour of obstacles that threatened to sink the project altogether.

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The reef was first dreamed up by a diver called Gary Levine, you see, and the project initially faced some formidable design challenges. One prerequisite was that it had to be strong enough to resist a one-hundred-year storm, for example. Climatologist Pam Knox discussed this weather event with Live Science in 2009, explaining, “What it means is that every year there’s a one-in-100 chance of one of these happening.”

Category four Hurricane Andrew was the one-hundred-year storm until that time. To add to the challenge, though, Andrew was actually reassigned to category five during the reef’s design phase. As the highest possible grade, this meant that the whole engineering process had to be completely rethought before the planned 16-acre site could be approved. But the site’s engineers weren’t worried that a storm might eerily awaken its dead residents; they simply had to ensure its structural integrity.

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Once designers could demonstrate that it had the strength to survive, the reef would then be constructed. Thanks to funding from the Neptune Society, $1.5 million was splashed out on phase one of the project. This stage of its development saw the concrete columns lowered into the Atlantic waters and arranged on the seabed.

This marked the first of many crucial steps needed to complete the ambitious endeavor. And the team’s ultimate aim? To construct a submerged metropolis comprising over 5,000 columns. But for a project of that scale, hostile storms were not the only environmental force that the reef’s designers had to face.

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The city’s man-made network of columns, carvings and concrete curvatures also had to be non-polluting. This meant that the complex had to spawn new life by attracting and preserving new species of creatures that could find solace in its shelter. The site was intended as a home for both new life and the dead, you see.

To ensure that the reef was environmentally friendly, marine biologists worked with engineers to design something that would nurture the world it was to be implanted into. This included shaping its features in the silhouettes of marine life familiar to visiting fishes like shells and starfish. Building a thriving ecosystem from the ground up, it seems, is no walk in the park.

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And installing the reef’s great monuments was no exception. Each concrete foundation weighs at least 50 tons and contains four cylinders that drive 11 feet down into the seafloor. Anchoring the structure in place, these pipes work to minimize the reef’s movement and therefore its disruption to the life surrounding it. The upright frames projecting from those foundations are also designed to support the growth of corals.

Though they may look imposing, the curvatures of the reef’s grand archways actually contain tiny holes that provide prey creatures with somewhere to hide from predators. And it is because of these innovative details littering the project’s design that the man-made structure can help – rather than hamper – the local ecosystem.

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As the project’s co-founder and operations director Jim Hutslar told the Associated Press in 2018, “We’re seeing animals that we haven’t seen before. Ones that have been missing for a long time. We actually found a long spine sea urchin that was considered extinct in the Caribbean Sea.”

But this modern-day Atlantis boasts more than just an abundant array of nature. Yes, the site – which is called the Neptune Memorial Reef – also holds another fascinating secret. It’s actually home to around 1,500 deceased people, whose remains lie among the sculptures of this underwater city.

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Secured to the statues and sculptures of the Neptune Memorial Reef are dozens of plaques memorializing loved ones. The tablets range from $1,500 to $8,000, depending on their size, shape and position on the reef. And the team hopes to eventually install more than 250,000 such epitaphs at the site.

The more expensive tablets are shaped into creatures that are natively found in the coral habitat and will therefore make familiar neighbors to the visiting life – like stingrays, sea turtles and starfish. These are then fastened on to the reef’s fixtures.

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But the Neptune Memorial Reef goes far beyond a mere plaque and epitaph to enshrine the memory of the deceased. The departed are also laid to rest at the reef itself among the bountiful fish and fauna.

But if you thought that the individuals were simply buried between the sands or their ashes scattered among the waves, you might want to think again. The brains behind the Neptune Memorial Reef also thought up some pretty unusual, eco-friendly burial techniques.

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According to Jim Hustlar – the operations director – people can have their cremated remains put into a concrete mix that is used to build the reef’s features. It’s not just that plaques are affixed to stately balusters, then. Cremated remains are actually cast into the structures themselves, becoming features of the reef itself.

The Neptune Memorial Reef is a network of concrete roads that come together at a soaring urn centerpiece. These pathways were engineered with a series of platforms. And upon these shelves sit an array of sculpted animal features made of cremated ashes and non-porous concrete. The specific shape of each figure is apparently selected by the late individuals themselves.

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According to Atlas Obscura, one of the reef’s residents is Bert Kilbride, who once made it into the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest scuba diver. His column sits at the top of the gate entrance to the expanse of dedicated cremation features and sculptures that lie beyond.

According to Neptune Memorial Reef’s official website, the first intended burial on the site was for a boy named Daniel Restrepo. After he was shot in a drive-by at just 13 years old, the boy spent ten years retraining himself to walk and talk before he tragically passed away. Restrepo’s ashes were used to create a complete column from which there would be space for his family to make a further 13 additions to the reef in the future.

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Old lives spawn new ones in this special location. Reef-building coral wraps itself round frames built from cremation ashes, and new fish species stow away in the shadows of columns created from their remains. The ashes of loved ones are cemented into structures that can preserve and protect new beings, while also giving sea-lovers a concrete and tangible legacy among the deep.

On its official website, the Neptune Memorial Reef said that it is “proud to provide this green… alternative to a traditional burial, offering a unique and ecologically sensitive memorial following cremation.” More than this, though, the special underwater site serves as a unique place for the families of its members to pay their respects.

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Relatives can pay a visit to their deceased family and friends via boat or a snorkel excursion. The Neptune Memorial Reef’s website said, “Some family members actually become dive certified, enabling them to visit the site, to see their loved ones and to monitor the reef’s growth.”

After Edith Hink died in 2008 at the age of 86, her ashes were cast into one of the reef’s concrete pillars. As keen scuba divers, Edith’s close family frequently dives down to the reef to visit her. Edith’s son, John Hink, told the Miami Herald in 2018, “It is a stunningly beautiful, uplifting, meditative place.”

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For many families, the underwater space offers an exclusive place to reflect and reconnect with the deceased. Having asked to be buried at the Neptune Memorial Reef prior to their deaths, Linda and Buel Payne’s plaques were installed in 2018. Their son told The Associated Press that year, “I really didn’t get it when [my mom] was telling me about it and the more and more I think about it, it’s really a nice, peaceful spot for your last resting place.”

Daniel Payne’s brother Will, meanwhile, was just as happy about his parents’ resting place. He offered his own thoughts, telling the publication, “It’s just amazing. It’s so peaceful. If there is a heaven, that would be it for them.”

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And as we mentioned earlier, it’s not just individuals who enjoy the stunning sights of the Neptune Memorial Reef. Marine biologists, researchers and recreational divers all take to the depths of the Atlantic to explore this hidden graveyard.

Melissa Pitalo, market director for SCI – North America’s biggest funeral service and owner of the reef – talked to Globe Newswire about what made the site so special. She told the publication in 2018, “For years now, Neptune Memorial Reef has served as a unique destination for many, as an underwater memorial for loved ones, world-class dive site and marine ecology sanctuary.”

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As both a fascinating site for curious divers and an enchanting resting place where relatives can reconnect with loved ones, the Neptune Memorial Reef is unquestionably one of a kind. And for whatever reason it is visited, the submarine mausoleum – with its crumbling columns and algae-engulfed tombs – is certainly atmospheric.

A sunken shrine for past life and a protective sanctuary for the new, the Neptune Memorial Reef offers a tribute to life like no other. By allowing the departed to build a brand-new reef that spawns new species while it protects the past life locked within it, this displaced Atlantis is a haven for new life.

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Naturally, the Neptune Memorial Park has made its way into the hearts of many. Vicki Hink – whose mother-in-law Edith is buried there – recalled to the Miami Herald a conversation that she’d had with her late relative. Vicki explained, “We told her, ‘Dolphins will be swimming around you,’ and she said, ‘That’s where I want to be.’ And we said, ‘We’ll join you, eventually.’”

Of course, Florida’s Atlantic coast isn’t the only body of water in America to have hidden some curious sunken secrets. Take Lake Michigan, for example. Local woman Kim McDaniel was walking along its shores one Thanksgiving when she spotted a ghostly shape in its dark waters. And what she discovered emerging from the sand was so unexpected that she called the Coast Guard to investigate.

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McDaniel was out to see what damage might have been caused by the fierce storm the day before when she made the discovery. Those who live along the shores of Lake Michigan are well accustomed to harsh weather – as are the sailors who navigate its waters. Fall often sees extremely wild weather crossing the lake, and high winds can whip up waves as high as 15 feet, sometimes causing damage to properties along the shoreline. And this bad weather can put ships on the water at risk, too.

But that storm on the day before Thanksgiving 2019 was a humdinger. Winds gusted up to 40 mph, and local businesses were forced into early closure by power blackouts. South Haven – just over 60 miles south of Muskegon on Lake Michigan’s western shore – was even forced to close its beach: the risk from flooding was just too high.

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Incidentally, there had been some ferocious weather back in October, too. These storms had resulted in severe erosion along the western shore of Lake Michigan – where the brunt of the high winds and rain had been felt. And matters hadn’t been helped by the fact that water levels across the Great Lakes, including Michigan, had nearly reached record-breaking highs for the time of year.

So, it’s hardly surprising that Muskegon-native McDaniel had decided to check out the storm damage near her home on Thanksgiving. As the woman strolled along the lakeshore, she caught sight of a strange shape near the water’s edge. McDaniel couldn’t work out what this mysterious object might be – but she knew that she hadn’t seen it before. We’ll come back to the discovery shortly, but first, let’s learn a little more about Lake Michigan and some of the secrets that lurk beneath its surface.

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You’ll probably remember from grade school geography that Lake Michigan is one of North America’s five Great Lakes. Strictly speaking, there are actually only four great lakes since Michigan is linked by a slim channel, the Straits of Mackinac, to Lake Huron. So the two lakes form one large expanse of water by virtue of their connection. However, in everyday usage, Michigan and Huron stand alone.

Of the five Great Lakes, Michigan is the only one without a section in Canada. It’s surrounded by four U.S. states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. McDaniel, as we’ve seen, was on that section of the lakeshore that’s within Michigan State when she saw that mysterious object in the water.

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Human presence at Lake Michigan goes back at least to the Hopewell Indians, who were there until around A.D. 800. After that various other North American native peoples occupied the region. It was probably in the 1630s that Europeans first arrived at Lake Michigan in the shape of a Frenchman: one Jean Nicolet. He is said to have dressed in vivid colors and to have brandished two pistols to impress the locals.

As European settlement gathered pace from the late-17th century, Lake Michigan became an important transport link for the movement of goods and people. It was part of a network of waterways stretching as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. So it had various vessels plying its waters from an early date.

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By the 19th century, as Lake Michigan’s commercial importance increased, cities and ports began to flourish on its shores, including Chicago, Green Bay and Milwaukee. Indeed, before the Civil War, Chicago shipped 90 percent of grain that arrived at the city eastwards across the lake. Even after the later advent of the railroads, 50 percent of grain still traveled across Lake Michigan.

So shipping was a major activity. And even although Michigan is an inland lake, ships often found themselves in trouble thanks to the unpredictable weather patterns and the storms that can seemingly appear from nowhere. The list of vessels sunk on the lake is a long one, as is the roll call of sailors and passengers who have lost their lives over the years.

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The most tragic of incidents on Lake Michigan, and indeed on all of the Great Lakes, came in 1860. It involved the P.S. (Paddle Steamer) Lady Elgin, a timber-built vessel fitted with side paddles driven by steam engines. She was constructed in Buffalo, New York in 1851 and was said to have been one of the Great Lakes’ most luxurious and graceful passenger ships.

Lady Elgin seems to have been something of an accident-prone vessel. She sank in 1854 after an argument with a rock but was repaired and returned to service. A fire broke out aboard her in 1857 and the following year she crashed into a reef at Copper Harbor, Michigan. Later that same year she was stranded in a Lake Superior reef.

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But all of those were relatively minor mishaps compared to what happened to the unfortunate Lady Elgin in the early hours of September 8, 1860. On September 6, she had set sail from Milwaukee, bound for Chicago. Some 300 of those on board were members of the Irish Union Guard, an anti-slavery militia group. They attended political speeches during the day in Chicago followed by an evening enlivened by a German brass band back on the ship.

As the passengers enjoyed the stirring brass band music, the Lady Elgin steamed across Lake Michigan. Then, out of the darkness, a schooner, Augusta, out of Oswego, rammed straight into the Elgin’s port side. The Augusta’s bowsprit, the spar at her bow, was damaged. But the outcome of the collision was far more serious for the Lady Elgin.

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The impact, which came some ten miles from the shore, holed the Lady Elgin below the waterline. The Augusta’s captain, apparently believing that the Elgin was not seriously damaged, sailed on to his destination of Chicago, leaving his stricken victim behind in his wake. This action was to have dire consequences.

On board the Elgin, it was quickly apparent to her skipper, Captain Jack Wilson, that his vessel faced a serious emergency. Indeed, after his first mate woke him, the two men surveyed the damage and rapidly reached the conclusion that their vessel would surely sink. They began to take what action they could.

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Wilson and his men attempted to get their vessel to ride higher in the water to stop the inflow of water though the gash in the hull. To lighten the vessel, they pushed live cattle, various bits of cargo and other items overboard. They even tried to plug the hole with mattresses. But it was all to no avail. After just 20 minutes, the Lady Elgin broke up and sank.

Amazingly, this was not the end of the road for most of the crew and passengers. Talking to Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV in 2016, the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association’s Brendan Baillod explained what happened after the ship sank. Baillod said, “People started to spill into the lake, they were clinging to debris wherever they could find them.”

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Baillod continued, “Most of the people who were on the Lady Elgin survived the two-hour ride to shore on the debris, what they did not survive was the huge surf of the shoreline.” Of those aboard the ship, 98 survived and were rescued. More than 300 people lost their lives according to most accounts, although Baillod believes the number to be closer to 400. As there was no accurate passenger manifest, it’s difficult to be sure.

In terms of lives lost, the sinking of the Lady Elgin is the worst nautical disaster that the Great Lakes have ever seen. And Baillod described the grim aftermath of the disaster, “People washed up all across the whole shoreline of the lake.” The wreck of the Lady Elgin lay undiscovered for 128 years until it was found in 1989 off the city of Highwood, Illinois.

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Fortunately, no other wreck on Lake Michigan cost so many lives, but many other ships have sunk over the years. As recently as 1960, cargo ship S.S. Francisco Morazan set sail across Lake Michigan from Chicago. In a snowstorm, the ship lost its bearings and grounded just 300 yards from the shore. Luckily, the crew of 13 and the captain’s pregnant wife were all rescued although the vessel was a total write-off.

So Lake Michigan is no stranger to disaster. In fact, in modern times, catastrophes involving shipping are much rarer thanks to modern technology and merchant shipping that’s built to a much higher standard than once was the case. But from time to time, evidence of past disasters still emerges from the lake’s shifting waters and mud banks.

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And that brings us back to Muskegon resident Kim McDaniel. It’s time we found out just exactly what she spotted just off the shore near her home on Thanksgiving. As we’ve seen, she had gone for a walk to check on the damage caused by a terrific storm the day before when she saw a weird apparition in the water.

McDaniel was walking along the scenic mile-long sandy beach at Muskegon’s Norman F. Kruse Park on Lake Michigan’s Norton Shores when she spotted something strange in the waters of the lake. The park is a popular spot with dog walkers and families with children. Summer sees picnickers and families enjoying the beauty spot.

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At first, McDaniel could only make out a dark shape peeking out from the water. Shockingly, closer examination showed that it was actually an old shipwreck that had appeared, ghostlike, above the waves. Erosion caused by the high winds and turbulent waves of the previous day’s had exposed the eerie remains of a timber-hulled ship.

As we’ve seen, shipwrecks are hardly a rarity in the waters of Lake Michigan, but this latest storm had revealed this one for the first time in many years. McDaniel decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances was to alert the Coast Guard. She duly called the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Grand Haven first thing the next morning.

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As McDaniel later told ABC affiliate 13 On Your Side, “We were shocked to see this boat that was not there the day before.” Once she’d alerted the Coast Guard to her discovery, staff there reported the wreck to local historians. Divers now went on to the lake to take a closer look at the sunken wreck.

One of those who went into the icy waters of Lake Michigan to get a closer look at the rotting timbers of the wreck was John Hanson, president of the West Michigan Underwater Preserve. That organization works with the state of Michigan to explore and protect wrecks and other archeological features found in the lake’s western coastal area.

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Hanson measured the wreck and found it to be 88 feet in length and 21 feet across its beam. He reckoned the vessel was a cargo-carrying barge probably built in the 19th century. Hanson told Fox News, “The wreck is about one-third covered up now. It has lost a few boards from wave action.”

Hanson talked to a historian about the find and was told him that this very boat might have been involved in a tragedy on the lake in 1936. In that year, a ship was transporting a large steam-powered crane from Muskogen up the coast to Grand Haven, about a dozen miles south down Lake Michigan’s western shore.

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The crane was a Bucyrus Erie Steam Crane, built in 1915. However, what should have been a routine trip, transporting the crane along the Lake Michigan shoreline, ended abruptly in disaster. After the barge sprung a leak, the inflowing water destabilized the vessel when it was about a quarter-mile out on the lake.

In January 2020 Hanson told the WWMT News station what had happened after the barge had gotten into trouble. He explained, “The Coast Guard was called, and being a very old barge, when they hooked onto it and pulled on it, they pulled the bow right off of it. The steam crane went into the water and exploded because it was still hot.”

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The crane had drifted, or been pushed by storm surges, around half a mile from where the barge now lies. And there’s good evidence that this really is the barge that carried that crane. Hansen points out that the wreck is missing its bow, tying in with what’s known about the incident back in 1936.

And the remnants of that crane were actually discovered in 2011. It’s now one of the 15 underwater shipwrecks in the West Michigan Underwater Preserve area, and it’s tagged as a dive site. In fact, the preservation area has 13 sites that are classified as underwater museums that divers can visit and explore.

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And the appearance of that wrecked barge is not the only evidence of the ferocity of that Lake Michigan storm the day before Thanksgiving. Felled trees have effectively barricaded off the beach at Kruse Park. What’s more, the sandy stretch there has been reduced from its former glory to a slim strip. A stairway that led on to the beach has been destroyed. All in all, it makes for a sad picture of devastation.

After McDaniel had discovered the wreck, her main anxiety was that it should be preserved. She was worried that people would flock to the scene for a look at this intriguing barge wreck. But as she pointed out, most of the viewpoints were actually on private land or atop dunes that were now hazardous because of the erosion resulting from the latest storm.

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McDaniel told the 13 On Your Side news station, “Please, please respect this relic. Please give the professionals a chance to measure her, to identify her – right now she is unknown, she is uncharted. Please be careful. These bluffs are eroding, they are falling in. It is not safe, please be careful.”

John Hanson added his words to McDaniel’s plea. He said, “These are historical sites. They’re museums, in essence. You wouldn’t walk into a museum and say, ‘Hey, there’s a shrunken head’ and take it home. You want to leave it there for other people to see and experience. It’s part of our maritime heritage.”

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However, it seems that nature may solve the problem of preserving the wreck for posterity and perhaps more detailed investigation in the future. By early January, the action of the lake’s waters had actually begun to cover the shipwrecked barge over. And Hanson was of the opinion that it might well be submerged beneath the lake’s surface again within just a few months.

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