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This isn’t quite the same as Princess Ariel’s magical underwater kingdom, but it’s magical nonetheless. If you plan on visiting Florida in the future, make sure to pencil in some time in South Walton, where you can dive into an immersive underwater museum experience -- literally.

South Walton is home to the first and only underwater museum in the U.S. For a closer peek into what the museum offers and how it can be experienced, read on!

About The Museum

The Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA) joined together to create this underwater wonderland. As of 2018, divers and lovers of art have been able to shoot (or drift) to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and surround themselves with sea life galore as they view masterpieces submerged on the seafloor.

An art installation at UMA.

The Underwater Museum of Art, or UMA for short, was an idea sparked by CAA board member Allison Wickey. National Geographic reports that Wickey got the idea while “snorkeling above one of SWARA’s artificial reefs.” She began to make out how the reefs looked like sea animals. After that realization in 2017, a light bulb went off in Wickey’s head. She envisioned an interactive underwater museum of art. A year later, in 2018, the museum made its grand opening.

Since its opening, the museum has had an impact. It was even mentioned in the Time’s Greatest Places of 2018.

The Exhibits

UMA’s sculptures are meant to blend in with and eventually turn into parts of the underwater world. CAA executive director Jennifer Steele told Time, “The purpose is for them to become part of the environment, enhancing it and stimulating the ecosystem.”

Andy McAlexander, the president of the board of directors for SWARAm shared his philosophy on UMA with the National Geographic: “When you dive down and view the exhibit and see the marine life clustered around the structures you gain appreciation. When you see small fish taking refuge inside a piece of art you see more than just the beauty of the art, you experience the beauty of life in general and how each of us has a part to play in preserving something so fragile.”

Building the museum at UMA.

In order to protect the ocean and its wildlife, the museum’s sculptures are not made with any plastic or toxic materials. Steele said new designs are added each year, but the museum’s website reveals that some of the sculptures are intended to be permanent exhibits. The museum accepts proposals from artists who’d like to create UMA installations year-round. If you’re an interested artist, fill out the application here!

How To See The Museum

Luckily, you can live out your underwater exploration dreams for free! Access to the museum is free, however, if you choose to park at nearby Grayton Beach State Park, you will have to pay an entry fee based on the number of passengers in your vehicle. Another stipulation is that if you have dreams of deep-sea diving in this underwater art oasis, you have to know how to actually dive. This isn’t the place for learners or first-timers. Since the museum’s installations are situated at nearly 60 feet deep, it actually requires visitors to be certified divers. Snorkelers are allowed to view the museum from the water’s surface, meaning any confident open-water swimmer can enjoy glimpses of the museum. For answers to other visit-related questions, see UMA’s FAQ page before you go!

An art installation at UMA.

For more underwater fun, read about snorkeling Egypt’s Red Sea and what to expect from the incredible experience. Or, if you’d prefer to stay above the water (and in Florida!), consider a visit to Space Coast, where you can explore Florida’s glowing waters in a see-through kayak!

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