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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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August 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Rest in Peace - - Underwater

sleep with the fishes literally - - and help to build a reef

from the August, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you’re in the Miami area and feel like diving, here’s a site to explore. Take a boat from Key Biscayne and set your GPS coordinates to 25.41.412 N, 80.05.445 W. Head 3.25 miles east until you see mooring buoys. Jump out and descend to 45 feet. There you’ll find the first phase of the most unusual artificial reef ever sunk in Miami-Dade County waters. It’s a half-acre network of concrete pathways and benches, bronze columns and statues that serves as a haven for fish -- and a graveyard for people.

Opened last November, the Neptune Memorial Reef is an artistic portrayal of the lost city of Atlantis. Thinly coated with marine growth and guarded by lions, it already has attracted amberjack, mutton and gray snapper, angelfish, grunt, even a scorpionfish pretending to be a statue of itself. The ornate arches and balustrades also serve as final resting places for the cremated remains of several people.

It’s one of a number of artificial reefs that also serve as final resting places for divers, fishermen and general water-lovers – and their pets, too. Eternal Reefs, the creator of “reef balls,” pioneered the idea 10 years ago in Florida and is now building memorial reefs along the Eastern Seaboard.

Before you scoff, consider that the family of Caribbean dive pioneer Bert Kilbride thought it a good idea. After the “Last Pirate of the Caribbean” died in January at age 93, his ash remains were mixed with cement designed for underwater use and fitted into a mold. A copper and bronze plaque was installed with his name, date of birth and death, and a memorial message. A diver then placed his mold atop a column of the Neptune Reef’s main gate, a place of high honor because of his contributions to the sea. “I think he would feel very honored,” his son Gary Kilbride told the Associated Press. “This is somebody who has been connected to the sea his whole life.”

The Neptune Society, a cremation services company based in Fort Lauderdale, has invested $2 million in the reef, designed by sculptor Kim Brandell. To pay for the project, the society is selling “placements,” the columns, statues and molds containing cremated remains, priced at an average of $2,000. The reef’s first phase allows for about 850 remains. Project manager Jim Hutslar says that when completed in eight years, the reef will cover 16 acres and have room for 125,000 remains. Molds for remains can be shaped into starfish, seashell and brain coral. Those interested in making this Atlantis their eternal home can get details at

Because it’s in open waters, living divers can visit too. The Neptune Society has contracted with some local dive shops like Key Divers in Key Biscayne and Tarpon Dive Center in Miami to include it on their dive trips. Stephen Blair of Miami- Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management, which has oversight of the reef, believes it will become a big tourist attraction for divers.

The first person to be officially buried within a reef was Carleton Glen Palmer, father-in-law of Eternal Reefs founder Don Brawley. Brawley had pioneered the concept of “reef balls,” eco-friendly concrete designed for sea life to attach and grow on, and it has become a standard for coral regrowth projects worldwide, but it was Palmer who thought of an alternative use for them. “He came over for dinner in 1998 and asked if I could put his ashes in a reef ball and place them on a reef,” said Brawley. “He said, ‘I can think of nothing better than spending eternity with all that action going on around me - just make sure the location has lots of red snapper and grouper.’” Palmer died a few months later, so Brawley mixed his remains into reef ball concrete and got permission from local officials to place it on an artificial reef he was working on in Sarasota, Florida. Palmer got his wish -- the Sarasota reef, now with more than 100 memorial reef balls, is teeming with life. “When I told the story to friends and business associates, they asked, ‘How can I do that, and how much does it cost?’”

When Brawley spoke with Undercurrent, it was right after he had placed 17 new memorial balls there in a ceremony attended by 120 people. So far, Eternal Reefs has buried 800 people. “If we could get just two percent of people who decide to be cremated to put their remains in the reef balls, we could build 15,000 to 20,000 reefs a year at no cost to the government.”

There are no official fish counts but Eternal Reefs president Chuck Kizina says that a decade of setting reefs is making an impact. “As soon as we place the reefs, fish move in immediately and start laying eggs. Then come groups of smaller bait fish, crabs start living underneath and corals start bridging the reef placements.”

One of Eternal Reefs’ memorial reef balls

One of Eternal Reefs’ memorial reef balls


Placements range from $4,995 for an Atlantis memorial reef ball to $995 for a community reef memorial. Unfortunately, you can’t pick your location in advance, because reef-building permits are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. Eternal Reefs also doesn’t do individual reef placements because it’s too inefficient and doesn’t build up the reefs. “As soon as five people sign up for burials, we put the dates and schedule out there, and with a little luck, we fill it up,” saws Brawley.

For people who want to be buried together, Eternal Reefs recommends saving some ashes from the first to go so that a communal memorial can be built with ashes from both parties in the same place. It also offers “Pearl for Pets,” a reef ball memorial for house pets up to 150 pounds for $895, but Brawley says most pets are mixed in with their masters. And don’t have second thoughts – once the reef ball goes in the water, it stays there, and is guaranteed to last for 500 years.

Eternal Reefs now has memorial sites in Miami, Charleston, Ocean City and Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and Ocean City in New Jersey. The reason for the East Coast prevalence is because each state there has marine fisheries commissions with an artificial reef coordinator that helps Eternal Reefs get the work done. There are no reef coordinators in the Pacific states, which can be red-tape heavy when it comes to anything coastrelated, but Brawley hopes to announce West Coast memorial reefs in early 2009. For details, go to

- - Vanessa Richardson

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