By Hope Katz Gibbs
Florida Outdoors Guide
The Miami Herald
Marilyn Robinson and Scott Hutchinson didn’t want a traditional wedding. The couple from Clearwater were each married before and had done the white lace and black tales bit. They calculated a reception would cost $10,000, “and that’s just too much dough to spend all so our friends can get dressed up and drink themselves silly,” Hutchinson confides.
No, this time was going to be unique, different, and a bit exotic. They decided to get married beside the Christ of the Abyss Statue at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park—a one-ton bronze statue 21 feet down. With arms extended toward the ocean surface, Hutchinson thought getting married beside the monument would make for a romantic, spiritual memory that would last a lifetime.
Robinson was game. She had received her diver’s certification just six weeks prior, and was eager to show off her new skills to her groom, who has been diving for the past 20 years.
“It’s legal, and something we’ll be able to brag about to our kids,” Hutchinson said just moments before the big leap.
On board, too, is Amy Slate, the officiator of the ceremony who is a notary at the Pennekamp Dive Shop. On a piece of gray slate, she has written their vows.
Dressed in white and black wetsuits, and accompanied by officiator Amy Smith—a notary at the— the couple jumped off the boat that had motored them to the site. With a plastic pencil the bride and groom will place a check mark to in the I do box. (There is no I don’t option. “If you’ve made it this far you or not going to back out now,” Hutchinson admits.)
And when the Smith gets to the “You may now kiss the bride,” part, Marilyn explains: “You take your regulator out of your mouth and turn your head. It’ll be a very wet, very sweet kiss.”
At last, the moment had arrived. After a big pre-marital smooch for good luck, they held hands and jumped off the motorboat that had driven them to the site. About 20 minutes later, they were back on the surface as man and wife.
“That was amazing,” Hutchinson beamed, noting that some undersea friends who usually hang out by the monument—a 50-pound barracuda named Smokey and a moray eel—had come by to watch the nuptials. “It’s not often that fish come to a wedding,” Robinson says. “It was very special.”
Aside from underwater weddings, John Pennekamp Park is “a playground of possibilities for the boater, snorkeler and fishing enthusiast alike,” says Greg Johnson, an underwater photographer and scuba diver who frequents the park.
He suggests visitors take a fishing boat to Molasses Reef at the southern tip of the park. Known as America’s fishbowl, a 50-foot tower of Elkhorn coral is home to thousands of species.
A few miles north is French Reef, where divers can swim through coral caves and tunnels. Nearby Tree Cave offers spectacular coral heads and winding sea channels.
Further north is the wreck of the M/V Benwood, a 285-foot steel freighter that was torpedoed by a German U-boat during WWII. It broke into bits as it sunk 300 feet to the ocean floor. The stern remains intact, at about 45 feet, and can be explored by divers.
TOURS, RENTALS, RIDES
• Glass bottom boat: Three times daily the M/V Discovery takes visitors on a boat ride around Molasses Reef; $8.50 adults, $4 kids.
• Dive master: Scuba buffs can board the Dive Master at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. for ride to Molasses Reef, French Reef, or Benwood Reef—depending on how the weather is behaving.
• Snorkelfest: Trek to Grecian Rocks about the El Captain, a 60-foot motorboat with a large dive platform on the stern. Trips run three times daily; $16 per person, including equipment and instruction.
• Drive yourself: Rent a 20-foot motorboat for $30 / hour. Holds four divers, two tanks each. And remember, the less weight on the boat, the faster it travels.
ABOUT: The Christ of the Abyss Statue
The original Christ of the Abyss Statue lives in San Frottuso Bay near Genoa, Italy. This 9-foot, 4000-pound replica was dropped to into the waters at Pennekamp Park in August 1965. Both were designed to inspire those who live, work, and play nearby—and to comfort those who have lost love ones to the sea.