Nation's 1st underwater veterans memorial opens to divers in Florida

PHOTO: The nations first-of-its-kind underwater dive memorial honoring American veterans opened in Clearwater, Fla., Aug. 5, 2019.PlayRebecca Hurley via Circle of Heroes
WATCH Circle of Heroes at Veteran's Reef

The nation's first underwater memorial honoring America's veterans opened to divers in Clearwater, Florida, this week.

Located roughly 10 miles off the shore of Clearwater and at a depth of 40 feet, the Circle of Heroes memorial displays 12 life-size concrete statues representing the men and women from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

An additional 12 statues will be installed in 2020, according to Circle of Heroes, to complete the 100-foot memorial.

PHOTO: The nations first-of-its-kind underwater dive memorial honoring American veterans opened in Clearwater, Fla., Aug. 5, 2019. Rebecca Hurley via Circle of Heroes
The nation's first-of-its-kind underwater dive memorial honoring American veterans opened in Clearwater, Fla., Aug. 5, 2019.

Divers first explored the new site on Monday following the memorial's dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony.

The privately-funded memorial is the brainchild of Dr. Heyward Mathews, a professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College. He began pursuing the idea of an underwater memorial nearly 10 years ago, as a way to honor service members and serve as a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and trauma.

PHOTO: The nations first-of-its-kind underwater dive memorial honoring American veterans opened in Clearwater, Fla., Aug. 5, 2019. Rebecca Hurley via Circle of Heroes
The nation's first-of-its-kind underwater dive memorial honoring American veterans opened in Clearwater, Fla., Aug. 5, 2019.

The memorial will also serve as an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico and bring dive-related tourism to the area.

"With the nation's first underwater memorial, we are shining the spotlight on the importance of remembering those who have fought to protect our freedoms," said Pinellas County Board Chair Karen Seel. "People around the world will visit this iconic site, increasing dive-related tourism and helping businesses grow in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area."

Former Congressman David Jolly's non-profit, Brighter Future Florida, led the campaign to complete the memorial.

"This underwater exhibit featuring our nation's heroes will also help sustain marine life in our Gulf waters by serving as an artificial reef," said Jolly, who is Mathews' nephew. "I also thank my uncle, Dr. Heyward Mathews, for creating the concept, and for his dedication to growing the dive community and tourism in our region."

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., said they were celebrating the "momentous day," and added, "But most importantly, we're honoring our heroes with an indelible legacy that will be admired for generations. This treasure of the Gulf will forever remind us of their sacrifices and their service to our country."

ABC News' Pat O'Gara contributed to this report.