The Florida Keys Reef Tract, also known as the Great Florida Reef, is a massive coral reef system that stretches parallel to the Florida Keys in the Atlantic Ocean, and is about 168 miles long (270 km). The Florida Keys Reef Tract is the world’s third largest living barrier reef, and the only living barrier reef in the continental United States.
The Christ Statue and Dry Rocks reef lie within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a Federally protected area which covers much of the barrier reef. Christ of the Abyss, also referred to as Christ of the Deep, sits within the boundaries of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park as well. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is also known as America’s first underwater park.
Christ of the Deep depicts Jesus Christ garbed in a long robe, standing tall on a pedestal with arms outstretched, reaching up toward the heavens. The towering statue stands close to 8 feet 6 inches tall. The Christ of the Abyss Statue is made out of bronze and weighs about 4000 pounds. The statue sits at Dry Rocks reef in about 25 feet of water. Snorkelers catch incredible underwater aerial views of the Christ Statue and surrounding coral reef. Scuba divers are able to dive down closer to explore the Statue at depth. Christ of the Deep is one of the world’s most famous underwater attractions.
The Christ of the Abyss Statue in Key Largo, Florida is one of only three other underwater Christ of the Abyss Statues. The original bronze statue, called “Il Cristo degli Abissi,” was erected in 1954 by Italian sculptor, Guido Galletti. The statue was inspired by Italian scuba diver, Duilio Marcante. Marcante wanted to memorialize a fellow dive-pioneer, Dario Gonzatti, who had died on a dive in San Fruttuoso, Italy, years prior. Marcante inspired the Galletti sculpture, which depicts a statue of Jesus following diver Gonzatti to heaven. The “Cristo degli Abissi” sits where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Bay of San Fruttuoso, the site of Gonzatti’s passing.
The second Christ of the Abyss Statue is located off the coast of St. George’s, Grenada. This statue was a gift from Italy to commemorate the Grenadians who rescued nearly 700 people from the M.V. Bianca C, a luxury liner which sank near Grand Anse Beach after an explosion, earlier that year. The second Christ Statue was cast from the same mold the original Christ Statue was cast from. This bronze Christ statue was placed in the waters of St George in 1961.
Key Largo’s Christ of the Abyss Statue is located in Key Largo, Florida in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The statue is the third and final cast of the original Italian Christ Statue, and was commissioned in 1961 by Egidio Cressi, an Italian dive equipment manufacturer. The Key Largo Christ Statue was then donated to the Underwater Society of America by Cressi. The third Christ Statue had quite a journey to its final destination in Key Largo, Florida.
The Christ of the Abyss statue was shipped from Cressi in Italy, to Chicago, Illinois and received by President of The Underwater Society of America, Carl Hauber. The Statue was first presented to the United States at the Palmer House in Chicago, then stored at O’Hare Airport until its final resting place was decided. Florida Senator, Spessard Holland, led the push for the Statue to be placed in John Pennekamp State Park, and eventually won. The Otter Diving Club of Orlando, Florida worked with the Naval Reserve to transport the Statue on a training Flight to Orlando to be displayed.
After its stay in Orlando, the Christ of the Abyss continued on its path to the Florida Keys, making a quick stop at the Art McKee Museum on Plantation Key in 1964. The Statue made it to John Pennekamp State Park in the spring of 1965. Christ of the Abyss was finally brought to its permanent location at Dry Rocks reef in “America’s First Underwater Park” late summer of 1965. On September 8th, shortly after its placement, the Statue was given the ultimate test of strength with category 3 hurricane, Betsy. The Christ Statue remained fully intact, and was dedicated June 29th of the following year, at Harry Harris Park in Tavernier, Florida, by John Pennekamp.
In the early 1990’s an unauthorized plaque was secured to the Christ of the Abyss Statue by an unknown source. The plaque that fell off in 2007, read: “If I take the wings of the morning and swell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. 1927 – 1988 In Memoriam Michael M. Kevorkian.” Michael Kevorkian owned and operated a dive shop in Miami, and ran dive tours in Key Largo. St. Justin’s Martyr Catholic Church commissioned Italian artist, Ido Demetz, to create a replica to be placed above ground for non-water goers to view. The replica was placed in Key Largo and can be viewed at the church near mile marker 105 of Overseas Highway, Route 1.
Key Largo Dry Rocks Sanctuary Preservation Area has proven that protecting these delicate biodiverse places has a positive effect on the surrounding environment. Dry Rocks is mostly made of spur and groove reef formations, as well as shallow and small patch reefs. Coral restoration of Staghorn, Elkhorn, and Acropora have taken place at Dry Rocks reef over years of its preservation. Dry Rocks is also known for its thriving population of star coral. The area protects vital surrounding seagrass, which provides habitat for many organisms including long-spined sea urchins and queen conch. Other marine life commonly seen around Dry Rocks includes: Parrotfish, Barracuda, Rays, Sea Turtles, Spiny Lobster, Angelfish, and a vibrant array of tropical fish. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and was put in place to respond to the deteriorating conditions of Florida Keys coral reef. The Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of vulnerable waters of the Florida Keys.
When visiting the Christ of the Abyss Statue in Key Largo, snorkelers and divers must remember that the shallow reef means more care is needed when in the water. Some areas of Dry Rocks are incredibly shallow, varying with the tide. It is important to follow proper dive and snorkel etiquette. Be aware of where your fins are as you move through the water, keeping them far from the coral. Divers must make sure their gear is pulled closely in and kept from dragging on the reef. Snorkelers and divers must never touch, stand on, or take any part of the coral reef or anything else in the Sanctuary. Even the slightest touch or break in coral can cause catastrophic damage that takes years to heal. Also remember to wear reef safe sunscreen to help prevent coral bleaching!