A virtual hawksbill turtle swims across the virtual Blacktip Island hardpan during an Eagle Ray Divers virtual reality scuba dive on Thursday. (Photo courtesy Leah Shore)
Blacktip Island’s Eagle Ray Cove resort this week unveiled a new virtual reality scuba program for guests who are unable to swim or are afraid of the water.
“We stick them in a V.R. suit, strap them in a harness and hang them in the conference room on bungee cords,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “They can kick and flail and bounce around just like our regular divers.
“We pipe in sounds of regulators, bubbles, pistol shrimp and boat propellers to add to the realism,” Latner said. “We have a divemaster to tell bad jokes between dives, too, and give virtual fire coral and jellyfish stings when needed.”
Local underwater videographers have been hired to provide a variety of reef scenes.
“What each diver sees totally depends on what they do while they’re hanging,” said local cameraperson Leah Shore. “We’re shooting non-stop so there’s as many options as possible.
“Anything you’d run into on a real dive, you get in the V.R. room,” Shore said. “A current could kick up, a shark could chase you, the viz could go to hell, you name it. A guest freaked yesterday when she hit a downwelling and dropped 50 feet down the wall.”
Critics object to the program’s pricing as well as its secondary use as punishment for scuba divers who damage the reef with poor diving practices.
“They’re hanging folks on rubber bands and charging them the same as if they were on a boat,” dive tour organizer Kelly Cottonwick said. “That’s not right. Neither is making divers dangle in a cubicle if they bump the coral a few times.”
Eagle Ray Divers defended both practices.
“Those V.R. suits aren’t cheap,” Latner said. “And we have staffing costs to cover. Bottom line, we’re not forcing anyone to do anything. Except coral-crashing yahoos.
“Reef conservation’s a bonus,” Latner said. “Blacktip Island’s reefs are so healthy because we protect them. Reef trashers get two warnings, then they hang in the conference room and think about what they’ve done. It’s in the waiver they sign.
“If they can demonstrate improved buoyancy, they’re welcome back on the dive boat,” Latner said. “We’ve been selling buoyancy classes like crazy this week.”
Guests, meanwhile, rave about the experience’s authenticity.
“There was a ton of virtual surge today,” virtual diver Buddy Brunnez said. “The divemaster had to bring buckets for a couple of us to barf in. And a guy yesterday was complaining about decompression sickness.”
Latner said the resort will soon offer virtual reality specialty courses in night diving, navigation and nitrox.