PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Artist Kevin Marchetti's work is often admired on land. Now it can be admired from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Dozens of Marchetti's whimsical stainless steel sculptures and memorial plaques adorn a 175-foot barge that was sunk late Wednesday about 1.7 miles off Pensacola Beach.
Community leaders hope the barge will lure curious sea creatures along with recreational divers and fishermen.
"I've made a lot of artwork and people see it every day, but I've never made artwork for dolphins before," Marchetti joked.
Barge owner Frank Patti Jr. describes the art barge as a tribute and a gift to his hometown. Patti's family goes back generations in Pensacola and is well known for owning Joe Patti's Seafood, a large seafood market that is popular regional tourist attraction.
Patti runs Patti Marine Enterprises, a ship building company. The company acquired the barge in the 1980s after it was used to repair a damaged bridge. When it came time to scrap the old barge, Patti decided he wanted to do something creative with it. He began talking to Marchetti and county leaders about using it for an artificial reef.
"We came up with this idea," Patti said. "I wanted to give it back to the family as far as a tribute to the family and a tribute to the families of Pensacola."
The artwork includes renderings of the iconic Pensacola Beach sign that welcomes visitors; Blue Angels fighter jets that fly out of nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station; the FloraBama Bar on the Florida and Alabama state lines; and the flags of the five nations that have governed Pensacola since its discovery by Spanish explorers in 1559.
Throughout the barge are detailed renderings of sea turtles, crabs, tuna, snapper and other sea life. Memorial plaques pay tribute to numerous local families and to fisherman lost at sea.
A small container that looks like a UFO tucked under a fish sculpture contains the ashes of Marchetti's mother, a UFO buff.
"My mother passed away in 1997 and my sister had her ashes. We kept talking about putting them in the Gulf. When this project came along, my sisters and I started talking and were like 'this would be a really good place for my mother's ashes'," Marchetti said.
The reef will be an important addition to the county's growing artificial reef program and should soon be teeming with sea life, said Robert Turpin, Escambia County's marine resources director. In 2006, the Navy sank the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in about 110 feet of water off Pensacola. Many divers were disappointed because of the depth makes the Oriskany accessible to only experienced divers.
Turpin said the Patti reef, about 50 feet down, will be an easy dive for most divers. And he said it will fun experience for undersea explorers.
"It is a very unique reef. It is as much art as it is artificial reef," he said.
On Wednesday, dozens of Patti family members and project supporters headed out into the Gulf of Mexico to watch the barge sink. Air horns blew, boats honked and champagne corks popped as a massive spray of water shot up when the barge tipped and sank to the ocean floor.
Carter Scarritt, a nephew of Patti, was among those joining in the festivities. His name is on one of the memorial plaques, along with the names of immediate family members.
"My name is going to be down there for a very, very long time. It's stainless steel so it won't rust out. It is going to be a big deal," he said.
Scarritt isn't a diver, but he said he might learn to dive because he wants to see his name on the ocean floor.
"I am not dive certified or anything, but I might start now, you never know," he said.