Off the coast of Pinellas County, an underwater memorial pays tribute to those who served our country

As the sun begins to rise at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, divers prepares for a 10-mile trip off the coast of Pinellas County. The 40-minute trip gives you time to pause and reflect on what you’re about to see. 

“You are going to the forward of the boat and we'll take the anchor line straight down,” said Shawn Campbell. 

After gearing up, it’s an easy dive down to around 40 feet. Following the anchored line, the Circle of Heroes comes into view. 

“You start off and you barely see them at first,” said Dr. Heyward Matthews. “You come in closer and you can see the outline comes out first and it’s kind of eerie as you’re easing in on there. Then all of a sudden you can see all of the statues with all of the detail.” 

Amazing detail -- paying respect to the men and women who have served our country though the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. There are 12 statues, each 6 feet tall. 

In 2020, additional underwater statues will be added to complete a 100-foot circle on the Gulf floor. (FOX 13 News)

“You can tell which war they were in by, many cases, their equipment on their helmet or by their weapons. In particular, veterans are like, ‘I know what that is,’” explained Dr. Matthews. 

Four years ago, Matthews, a professor of Oceanography at St. Petersburg College, envisioned the memorial. 

“It was a labor of love,” he said. 

The memorial is far from finished. A second phase will add additional statues to the site in 2020 to complete the circle. It’s a tribute that many can relate to, including Shawn Campbell, a dive master with Narcosis Scuba Center in Tarpon Springs.

“It hits me a little differently just because of the fact that I was a combat veteran and I was hurt in Iraq,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who were there and some who didn’t come back.” 

The statues have been placed 40 feet below the surface.

Here, a sense of peace can be felt. Where you can be alone with your thoughts and memories. 

“It’s a place to come and have some quiet time underwater where you can think about yourself and pay your respects,” said Campbell. 

Following the line back to the boat, the statues slowly disappear in the distance. As the dive comes to an end, you leave with a renewed sense of appreciation and gratitude for the men and women who’ve served. 

“These statues are 7,000 PSI concrete on a 2,000-pound concrete slab. They will be here for a long time to come,” Dr. Matthews said. “It’s a way to say, ‘Thank you,’ and I think that is important.”

Narcosis Scuba Center takes trips to the Circle of Heroes at least three times a week. It's the first underwater dive memorial for veterans in America.

LINK: For more information, visit the center’s website.

The underwater memorial also serves as a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans suffering from PTSD, depression and trauma. (FOX 13 News)