Artificial reef near Miami is a cemetery, scuba-dive attraction

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MIAMI — About 45 feet beneath the ocean’s surface lies a cemetery with gates, pathways, plaques and even benches.

The Neptune Memorial Reef, which opened last fall, is a t final resting spot for those who loved the sea. Its builders hope that one day the reef will cover 16 acres and have room for 125,000 remains.

The Neptune Memorial Reef is located in open waters 3 ¼ miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, which means any certified diver can visit. The artificial reef’s first phase allows for about 850 remains.

The ashes are mixed with cement designed for underwater use and fitted into a mold, which a diver then places and secures into the reef. A copper and bronze plaque is installed with the person’s name, date of birth and death. There is also a line for a message.

In March, the remains of 93-year-old diver Bert Kilbride — who called himself “The Last Pirate of the Caribbean” — were placed atop a column of the reef’s main gate, because of his contributions to the sea. Before his death, Kilbride was named the oldest living scuba diver in this year’s Guinness Book of World Records.

“I think he would feel very honored,” his son Gary Kilbride said. “This is somebody who has been connected to the sea his whole life.”

Stephen Blair, chief of the restoration and enhancement section of Miami-Dade County’s department of Environmental Resources Management, which has oversight of the reef, said it will become a tourist attraction.

“I think the combination of the structure, the dive-site aspect as well as the how it’s being used, makes it a unique site,” Blair said.

Keith Mille, an environmental specialist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said another method of burying ashes inside reef balls creates a habitat for fish and corals to attach. But he was impressed with the engineering concepts for this reef and the environment that it creates for divers.