By John Tapley; photos courtesy Heyward Mathews
On August 5, scuba divers, members of the Pinellas County community, and veterans and their loved ones joined in Clearwater, Florida to launch the Circle of Heroes underwater veterans memorial: a newly placed artificial reef designed to honor US servicemembers and establish a greater diving presence in local waters.
Opening the celebration through a ribbon cutting ceremony was project leader Heyward Mathews, seasoned reef special and professor of Oceanography at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg. Professor Mathews has designed and worked on reef installation projects for 60 years: establishing a brighter environment and a more robust destination for scuba divers.
The Circle of Heroes is located 10 miles west of Dunedin Beach down to about 40 feet of water, making it a solid choice for recreational divers. It displays 12 submerged concrete statues, weighing in at roughly 3,330 pounds, evenly spaced 25 feet apart, and portraying an aspect of the US military. Each statue features a name plate made from heavy acrylic, representing veterans in their respective branches, as well as memorial plaques ascribed with names from project sponsors. A nylon brush is fixed to a bolt on every installment to ensure the plates remain unobscured, and the overall work is built from high quality materials: per Mathews’ expertise, the circle should last over a century.
“The whole idea is to honor our veterans in a unique, different way. The only other underwater memorial the country has is the battleship Arizona, and nobody needs to dive it except when they put ashes of a survivor inside the ship with their shipmates. Another idea is that we’d like to make Pinnealas County into a dive destination and so far it’s been working: we’re getting calls in from all over the country with several veterans groups working with soldiers with PTSD that use diving to help. In the winter, when all the quarries are frozen up north, we expect to get quite a few dive groups coming down.”
A 6,000-pound center monument ties the statues together thematically within a 100-foot diameter. The centerpiece is five-sided, with each section proudly displaying a bronze emblem respectively representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines. The circle of statues is connected by steel chains, which lead divers around and through the installation; four mooring buoys floating from four evenly spaced corners help visitors find it from the surface.
“I don’t want divers dropping heavy anchors on top of these expensive statues,” says Professor Mathews. “Nowadays we’ve had a lot of boats show up around there, particularly dive boats that take groups there every morning and afternoon. We’ve got it so they can go down the mooring buoy, then simply follow the chains all along the circle.”
In many ways, the Circle of Heroes is an expansion of a similarly themed artificial reef project he worked on 20 years ago, as he elaborates:
“We’ve had a variety of artificial reefs primarily for fishing and scuba divers, and they’re all the way up and down Pinellas County: from the north end to Tampa Bay. In 1999, we started a new artificial reef from the county that we called Veteran’s Reef: we put it 10 miles due west of Clearwater; and at the time we built it, we had some concrete materials, and some barges, but the only thing we had that was military was a Neptune Bomber from the Korean War. We put a plaque down, dedicating this reef to our veterans, but unfortunately, a few months after putting the bomber down, a storm came up in the middle of the Gulf and a long period of waves tore it to pieces. For the last 20 years we’ve had a veteran’s reef that’s been used by divers and fishermen but didn’t have anything specific for veterans.
“I looked into the idea of using military equipment but realized over time they were eventually going to rust out to sea water and become junk on the bottom. Instead, I went with the idea of using life-sized, concrete military statues. It turns out there are two companies in the US (one in Minnesota, one in South Dakota) that make the statues for use in cemeteries, parks, and memorials. We went about 300 yards north of the existing part of Veteran’s Reef and built this new reef specifically for scuba divers.”
Artificial reef structures significantly benefit water environments by providing habitat for smaller species, thus enhancing the overall food ecology. While Mathews has developed reef systems for this purpose for decades, the Circle of Heroes is not specifically designed for it.
“The growth has already started but with this one, I used my previous experience at attractive reefs to building one that won’t particularly attract fish,” he says. “This one has no interior spaces: you’ve got a square, concrete slab sitting on a firm sand bottom, and a single, life-sized statue standing up. I’m not looking to have a whole bunch of fishermen come in; or spear fishermen bouncing a spear off a $20,000 statue.”
Circle of Heroes is a project driven by the Pinellas County community; volunteers have worked to solidify the site as a memorial and premiere dive destination, such as the local Eagle Scouts who poured concrete slabs for bolting the statues; non-profit Brighter Future Florida has spearheaded funding and promotion alongside the Pinellas County Commission.
Looking forward, Mathews and company plan to submerge 12 more statues in summer 2020. This next set will be custom made, and will include depictions of the iconic Tuskegee Airmen, famed General and Florida native Norman Schwarzkopf, portrayals of World War I and II and the Korean War, Special Forces, a hardhat diver, and a Navy SEAL.
“One statue in the works will show [divers] a soldier, a tank driver, who lost his legs to an IED 12 years ago… one of him at the Clearwater Aquarium where they have a [program] for veterans who’ve lost limbs can come and spend time with Winter the dolphin who lost his tail. It’s a good morale builder: a statue that will represent not only our veterans in combat but our obligations to them after they’ve returned.”
For ongoing developments on Circle of Heroes, and for sponsorship opportunities, visit Brighter Future Florida at https://brighterfutureflorida.org.