Man’s desire to enter the underwater world goes back to antiquity. Aristotle tells of Alexander the Great descending into the waters of the Mediterranean in something called a “diving bell”, as early as 332BC. The Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci designed a similar apparatus, adding a face mask and reinforced supply hoses, to withstand the pressure of the depths.
The first on-demand underwater breathing valve came about in 1860s France, thanks to the work of inventors Benoît Rouquayrol, and Auguste Denayrouze. British diving engineer Henry Albert Fleuss developed the first commercially viable “rebreather” in 1878, using an air bag and rope fiber soaked in potash to “scrub” carbon dioxide from exhaled air.
The 20th century brought with it new and improved methods of pumping, and storing, compressed gas. By the 1930s every major belligerent of the coming war, had developed its own underwater breathing apparatus.
Dario Gonzatti was the first Italian to use SCUBA gear and paid for it with his life in 1947, near the village of San Fruttuoso, on the Italian Riviera.
Gonzatti’s fellow diver Duilio Marcante conceived an idea to honor his friend. A monument to a world beneath the waves and dedicated to those who had lost their lives at sea. A 2½ meter tall bronze sculpture, Il Cristo degli Abissi. Christ of the Abyss.
There followed a period of collecting the metal. Cannon and other brass objects, retrieved from wrecks. Mothers and sweethearts sent coins and medals given to sailors, who never returned.
Sculptor Guido Galletti created the clay positive from which the mold was cast. A 2.5 meter (8.2 feet) likeness of Jesus Christ weighing in at 260 kg (573 pounds) without the foundation, eyes raised to the heavens and arms outstretched, in supplication. A benediction for untold numbers, lost at sea.
That first “Christ of the Abyss” was lowered in 57-feet of water on August 22, 1954, near the spot where Dario Gonzatti, lost his life.
Over the years, crustaceans and corrosion took their toll. A hand was broken off, by an anchor line. The statue was removed after a half-century and repaired, and re-lowered on July 17, 2004 to a newly-built foundation.
Since that first installation in 1954 two other Christ of the Abyss statues have descended into the depths, both cast from the same clay original. The first was a gift of gratitude given by the navy of Genoa, for assistance from the people of Granada in rescuing the crew of the Italian vessel MV Bianca, destroyed by fire in the port of St. George. That one was placed seven years after the original on October 22, 1961.
Italian dive equipment manufacturer Egidio Cressi donated a third to the Underwater Society of America, in 1962. This one was installed after much debate on August 25, 1965 in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo, Florida, the first underwater park in the United States.
Located in only 25-feet of water with hands but 8 to ten feet below the surface, the site remains a popular destination for underwater selfies, from that day to this.