Blacktip Island Holiday Light Display Gets New Life

(Editor’s note: After overindulgence at the Blacktip Times newsroom Christmas party, the entire news staff has been jailed and was unable to complete the coverage of the Blacktip Island Holiday Erotica Readings by press time. In the spirit of the season, the Blacktip Times is republishing a story that brought the community together for Christmas in 2013.)
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Blacktip Island’s holiday lights shine bright again at Diddley’s Landing public pier after a compromise among the small Caribbean island’s religious factions. (photo courtesy of Jerrod Ephesians)

Blacktip Island’s religious factions have put aside their quarrels in time to resurrect the community’s traditional holiday light display.

“We’ve been working on a compromise for months, but the devil’s been in the details,” said the former-Reverend Jerrod Ephesians, head of the island’s Interfaith Committee.

The display historically has been a source of friction among the Caribbean island’s diverse religious groups. Formerly referred to as Christmas lights, the name was changed in hopes of avoiding a repeat of 2012’s holiday riots, Ephesians said.

“Last year the Raëlians set the tree on fire the second night it was up,” Ephesians said. “When the Catholic Defense League retaliated, things went to hell right quick.

“This year, in the spirit of ecumenical good will, we’ve done away with the physical tree completely. But we all agreed the lights by themselves were quite lovely, so we kept those.”

In the absence of a tree, the light strands have been suspended from a small remote-controlled helicopter, donated by island scuba operators, at Diddley’s Landing public pier.

“We’ll light one strand at a time, an additional strand each night, during Hanukkah, after which people will be free to view them as non-denominational Christmas lights,” Ephesians said.

The display will also serve as site of the Winter Solstice celebration December 21 and Kwanzaa December 26 through January 1.

“Atheists are welcome to view the lights however they see fit, or to ignore them altogether,” Ephesians said.

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Divers Scour Blacktip Island Reefs To Save Lead Weights

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Some of the lead scuba diving weights retrieved Friday from Blacktip Island’s Pinnacle Reef by volunteer cleanup divers. (photo courtesy of Finn Kiick)

Blacktip Island environmentalists Friday launched a schedule for weekly volunteer reef cleanups aimed at ridding the Caribbean island’s dive sites of lead scuba weights.

“December starts high season for dropped weights,” cleanup organizer Ham Pilchard said. “Resort divers tend to be heavy anyway, and when the water temps dip, they squeeze into their thick wetsuits and grab a ton of weights.

“There’s lead dropping all over the reef, crashing coral and leeching poison into everything down there,” Pilchard said. “Integrated weight pockets? Try ‘weight dispensing units.’ We get divers whacked by falling lead at least once a week.”

The initiative given a boost by island dive operations complaining about a shortage of weights for their guests.

“Coral gets damaged, sure, but it got to the point where we didn’t have enough lead to get all our divers underwater,” said Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner. “People can’t dive, we have to refund their money.

“The Marine Parks folks couldn’t keep up with all those sunken weights,” Latner said. “Then Ham had the idea of making a game of it and things really took off.”

Blacktip Island dive operations let weight collectors dive free on their dive boats.

“We give ‘em a mesh sack and a lift bag and let ‘em go to town,” Club Scuba Doo dive chief Finn Kiick said. “We can count it as a Search and Recovery dive for an Advanced or specialty card, too. Plus, we pay a 10-cent-per-pound bounty.

“The hot dive sites are the most target rich,” Kiick said. “You find other stuff, too. Cameras. Knives. Wedding rings. Gold teeth. Glass eyes. We return what we can to the owners. What they can’t return gets sold at resort gift shops. Or online.”

The cleanups’ profit motive has drawn sharp criticism from some.

“Put all the lipstick on it you want, these people are scavengers,” Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort guest Buddy Brunnez said. “They’re selling stuff that isn’t theirs after, at best, a half-assed search for the owners. How hard do you really think they’re looking for who lost a gold ring?”

Industry professionals were quick to defend the sales.

“Ten cents a pound doesn’t really turn many heads,” Latner said. “But add the incentive of being able to make some real money through an online auction? Our boats are full, and so are our weight bins. Is that legal? That’s the divers’ concern – we get our weights back.

“We have one of our instructors working up a Weight Retrieval Diver distinctive specialty course, too,” Latner said. “Four dives, and bring back at least 50 pounds of lead, and the card’s yours. People are lining up to take it.”

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Shark Diver Specialty Lets Blacktip Island Guests Be Sharks

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An Eagle Ray Divers Shark Diver student tries out the scuba resort’s new, life-like shark suit Thursday at Blacktip Island’s Confrontation Reef. (Photo courtesy of Albert Kok)

Blacktip Island’s Eagle Ray Divers announced Friday they will offer a new Shark Diving specialty course that will allow divers dressed as sharks to interact with feeding reef sharks.

After two pool sessions, Shark Divers will don a life-like neoprene shark costume and swim among frenzied blacktip sharks in open water.

“We’ve got to stay competitive with other scuba resorts on the island,” said Ger Latner, Eagle Ray Cove’s dive operations manager. “Sandy Bottoms and Club Scuba Doo are eating our lunch. This gives our divers something they can’t get anywhere else.

“A couple of our instructors, Marina DeLow and Alison Diesel, came up with the idea, and we let them run with it,” Latner said.

“With this course, you don’t just get to see a shark, you get to be a shark,” DeLow said. “The sideways dolphin kick’s the skill that takes the longest to learn. You have to swim on your side to make the shark’s tail go back-and-forth properly.”

“You’ve gotta certify on the mini rebreather, too,” Diesel said. “A shark leaking bubbles freaks out the real sharks and totally ruins the experience. But if you do three open water dives in the suit, you get a Shark Rebreather card, too.”

Other island resorts were critical of the course.

“Ger’s yahoos’re chumming the water, then dropping unprotected divers smack in the middle of the food chain,” Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort owner Sandy Bottoms said. “How smart is that? A real shark bites the fake shark, it’s game over. For the diver and Blacktip Island’s tourism product.”

Scuba divers, though, raved about the course.

“It really gives you a feel of what it’s like to be a shark,” Eagle Ray Divers guest Bill Fish said. “And the Junior Shark Diver certification lets the kids in on the fun, too.

“We even put little Scotty in the Shark Snorkeling class,” Fish said. “Now the whole family can come out on the boat instead of one or the other of us staying behind on shore with the little ones. And the other divers love the way Scotty’s surface thrashing attracts so many blacktips.”

Eagle Ray Divers staff stressed the course entails on more than simple recreation.

“We talk about the role sharks play in our reef ecosystem, shark behavior and shark body language,” DeLow said. “It’s so gratifying when one of our divers does the ‘friendly-approach’ fin waggle and a reef shark comes in for a snuggle.

“Of course, we had that one diver sneeze while gesture beta testing,” DeLow added. “We’re not sure what, exactly, he signaled, but it didn’t turn out well. For the diver or the shark.”

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Bonfire, Fireworks Highlight Blacktip Island Fire Department Fundraiser

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The Blacktip Island Volunteer Fire Department tests fireworks Thursday night in preparation for Saturday’s fireworks show to raise money for new firefighting equipment.

A community bonfire and fireworks display will highlight the Blacktip Island Volunteer Fire Department’s Saturday fundraiser to pay for a new fire truck and firefighting equipment.

“Our buckets are rusted out and our little Isuzu needs a new starter,” fire chief Smokey Diesel said. “And a new grill and radiator and, well, engine, after Dermott crashed it into that tree during last week’s drill.

“We’ve been making do with whatever we could scrounge,” Diesel said. “But there’s only so many scooters and milk jugs on the island. And two big guys sharing a scooter, well, it’s not the professional image we’d like.”

Many locals are eager for the event, which will also feature hot wings- and jalapeno-eating contests, coal-walking lessons and water pistol fights for island children.

“It’s always a laugh to see things burn and fly through the air and explode,” island resident Lee Helm said. “Especially if it’s for a good cause. And there’s beer served.”

Other locals were skeptical.

“There’s not that much call for a fire department on this island,” resident Frank Maples said. “It’s mostly dumpster fires. On Friday and Saturday nights. Only thing they need for that’s a garden hose.”

Government officials were noncommittal.

“We’re self sufficient here on Blacktip,” island mayor Jack Cobia said. “There’s no government funding for anything. That truck and those buckets were donations to begin with. If Smokey wants new toys, he’s welcome to raise all the money he wants.”

Firefighters hope the event sways public opinion.

“The wiener roast and bottle rocket shoot-off will raise money, sure. And it’s always good to see smiles on the kiddo’s faces,” Diesel said. “But it’ll also show folks our volunteers’ firefighting skills in action.

“It’s win-win, really,” Diesel said. “When people see how we handle a big bonfire, that builds their confidence in us. And if a stray spark starts a blaze that gets out of hand, well, then they’ll see first hand the need for a better-equipped fire department.”

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Mud-Slinging Contest Winner Will Be Blacktip Island’s Mayor

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A hastily-dug mud pit outside Blacktip Island’s Heritage House will be the site of today’s tie-breaking mayoral mud-slinging contest. (Photo courtesy of Led Waite/Blacktip Island Elections Office)

A constitutional crisis was averted Thurssday when election officials invoked a little-known amendment to make literal mud-slinging determine who will be Blacktip Island’s mayor after the candidates tied in the popular vote.

Incumbent Jack Cobia and challenger Antonio Fletcher finished the election with four votes each. At noon today the men will strip to their shorts, stand 10 paces apart in a mud pit at the island’s Heritage House and throw sludge at each other.

“Blacktip Island’s founders knew these races would get ugly,” Elections Supervisor Ledford Waite said. “They put in an appropriate tie-breaker that would reflect a messy political campaign and entertain the voters at the same time.

“The constitution say the mayor needs ‘to have a strong arm,’” Waite said. “It also states that, in the event of a draw, throwing mud establishes that ability, as well as the grit to take a shot to the face and stay standing.”

The last-minute announcement had community leaders scrambling.

“We had to dig a mud pit quick-like-the-bunny,” said Public Works chief Stoney MacAdam. “The tricky part was mixing the mud to the right consistency. Too wet, it won’t throw. Too dry, it won’t stick.

“Had to slap together stands for 100 people, too,” MacAdam said. “Legally, we have to provide a clear viewing opportunity for the entire population so they can witness the electoral process first-hand and see the election’s not rigged.”

The last candidate standing will be declared the winner. Election observers have been on site since Wednesday to ensure no rocks, coral or other contraband are hidden in the mud.

“Last recorded mud-off was the infamous Skerritt-Bottoms contest of 1804,” Waite said. “Booger Bottoms’ supporters snuck loads of iguana guano into his section of the pit so he could throw that at Ferris Skerritt.

“The plan backfired, though, since Booger had to get hip-deep in the muck to throw it,” Waite said. “He ended up with more on him than he got on Ferris. It cost him the election.”

Antonio Fletcher was confident in his chances Friday.

“I’m not scared, you know,” Antonio Fletcher said. “Jack, he cheats at dominoes and everything else, but no way he can cheat at this in front of God and everyone.”

Jack Cobia was equally optimistic.

“If ‘Tonio thinks I’ll take it easy on him ‘cause he’s an old man, he’s got another thing coming,” Cobia said. “It’s my duty to whomp him. No way some non-alcoholic-beer drinker’s gonna represent this island.”

Island voters are eager for the contest.

“It’s perfect,” said resident Finn Kiick. “Jack and Antonio’ve been slinging figurative mud at each other for months. Time they finally used the real stuff.

“I voted for ‘Tonio, but my money’s on Jack in this one,” Kiick said. “He played Little League back in the day, and he’s still got that outfielder’s arm. He throws with his fingers together, ‘Tonio’s toast.”

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Mazurkas Replace Conchs In Blacktip Island’s Fall Extravaganza

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Marina DeLow and Clete Horn practice their Albanian mazurka while Mazurka Festival organizer Jay Valve looks on at the Blacktip Island Heritage House Friday morning. (Photo courtesy of Boris Orel)

A hastily-organized Blacktip Mazurka Festival will replace Blacktip Island’s traditional fall ConchFest this weekend. The eleventh-hour compromise by community leaders Wednesday night salvaged the island’s fall heritage event, cancelled after partisan infighting over the Caribbean island’s upcoming mayoral election between incumbent Jack Cobia and handyman Antonio Fletcher.

“Politics nearly ruined the island this time,” government watchdog Wade Soote said. “There’s no common ground anymore, no sense of community. And both sides saying they’re only ones with a claim to tradition.

“We hoped a long-standing event like ConchFest would heal some wounds,” Soote said. “Then Jack’s people and ‘Tonio’s people started in on ‘what do you mean by conch’ and what do I mean by conch,’ with neither side budging, and ConchFest was history.”

Event organizers said a board member’s off-the-cuff suggestion saved the festival.

“We couldn’t even have a meeting without a conch fight breaking out,” ConchFest chair Jay Valve said. “But we had to come up with something. That’s when Clete Horn threw out Albanian mazurka dancing.

“It’s perfect, really,” Valve said. “It speaks to the island’s multi-cultural diversity without being relevant to anyone or anything: it offends no one. No Blacktippers are even vaguely Albanian, none of us has been to Albania, and most of us can’t even spell it.”

To preserve the fragile truce, no conch or conch-related snacks will be sold at any restaurants or food booths.

“Our goal is to avoid any conch-related violence,” Valve said. “The last thing we need is people lobbing conch shells at each other. Or smacking folks in the face with raw conch, like at the last board meeting.”

The festival will also feature a polka dance-off, a traditional Albanian costume contest, and a no-holds-barred mazurka race from Eagle Ray Cove to Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort.

A last-minute addition is an underwater dance demonstration by island divemasters at Diddley’s Landing public pier at noon..

“The dive staffs felt left out, like our contributions to Blacktip culture were being overlooked,” Eagle Ray Cove divemaster Marina DeLow said. “The cool thing is dancing a mazurka underwater turns it into a slow waltz. It’s breathtaking, really. We tried a Liechtensteiner polka, but the magic just wasn’t there.”

Organizers are cautiously optimistic about the fall festival’s future.

“We’re hoping this will be a new tradition going forward, no matter how the election turns out” Valve said. “Funny thing is, the mayor doesn’t do anything. Or get paid. Before this conch kerfuffle, most people couldn’t tell you who the mayor was.”

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Blacktip Ague Ravages Blacktip Island Populace

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Larvae of the mosquitoes Blacktip Island health officials say carry the tropical fever sweeping the small Caribbean island. (photo courtesy of James Gathany, CDC)

An unseasonal outbreak of Blacktip ague this week has Blacktip Island public health officials concerned about the population’s collective health as flu season approaches.

“Blacktip ague pops up every few years, usually mid-July when mosquitoes are thickest,” Public Health Department spokesperson Dr. Alexandrine Poesy said. “We were ready with vaccines for it then, but those meds have a short shelf life. We don’t stock them year round. And some people just refuse to be vaccinated.

“While the ague’s not immediately life threatening, the big concern is this outbreak may weaken islanders’ immune systems and make them more susceptible to influenza,” Poesy said. “That, and its annoying symptoms. This could be a real double whammy for us.”

Blacktip ague’s symptoms include fever, flamboyant gestures and use of iambic hexameter, Poesy said. In extreme cases, victims speak in rhyming couplets.

The disease is believed to have been introduced to the island by European explorers in the mid-1600s.

“DNA research says about four centuries ago a Blacktip Island mosquito bit a Frenchman,” island historian Smithson Altschul said. “Ague victims have been talking in those damn six-beat sentences ever since.

“Any other fever, people stick to normal pentameter, like proper Brits and Americans,” Altschul said. “It’s aggravating. And that doesn’t even address the rhyming nonsense.”

Local dive operators say the outbreak has already affected their businesses.

“Our whole dive staff’s got it,” said Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner. “Guests laugh at first, hearing a villanelle for a dive briefing and seeing the divemasters in Speedos and red knit caps. But after the first morning, people just want to go diving.

“I mean, today when Lee spouted out, ‘Be gentle with the morays that lurk on this site / They’ll take a pound of flesh if your wetsuit’s too tight’ in that Jacques Cousteau accent, divers were knocking each other down and jumping overboard,” Latner said. ‘It’s creepy.”

Health professionals, meanwhile, are urging aggressive treatment.

“With this fever, the urge is to drink wine, but that just makes it worse,” said Poesy said. “The only effective treatment once the rhyming hits is tequila. Administered externally. Shower in it. Soak in it. Now’s not the time to skimp.”

Many locals, though, have put their trust in home remedies.

“Mama’s whelk-stew enema’s the best for what plagues you,” said island handyman Dermott Bottoms. “Stops all your rhyming and blows out your damn ague.”

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