Tensions High For Blacktip Island’s Coral Bonsai Show

coral bonsai

Blacktip Island Coraliculture Society president Rupert Basslet’s staghorn coral bonsai is one of the favorites to win this year’s Coral Bonsai Show Saturday at Blacktip Island’s Pinnacle Reef. (photo courtesy of Nick Hobgood)

Security is tight above and below the water at Pinnacle Reef this week for Saturday’s Blacktip Island Coraliculture Society’s quinquennial Coral Bonsai Show.

“Last time around there was all sorts of skullduggery to make competitors’ bonsais look bad for the judging,” society president Rupert Basslet said. “Rascals silted the coral, toppled sculptures, and there was one instance of an underwater heater being placed next to a bonsai to make it bleach the day before the show.

“The coral bonsai world can be incredibly vicious,” Basslet said. “We put our collective foot down this year. We have divers with spears patrolling underwater, and spotters on shore to make sure no one slips in unnoticed.”

The show is staged every five years to allow the coral sculptures to regrow after pruning.

“Coral grows so slow you have to wait ages post-prune to see the full effect,” said show chair Chuck DelKorn. “We tried to have the show annually, but the results were not esthetically pleasing. Lots of bare limestone where the coral polyps hadn’t grown back over.

“It takes decades to get one looking right,” DelKorn said. “Most of these bonsais have been passed down from generation to generation.”

Each bonsai master has their own idiosyncratic mix of preferred tools for coral sculpting.

“Coral’s fragile. Keeping a bonsai small and trim, one tiny slip can be irreparable,” Basslet said. “I use a child’s tack hammer and set of jeweler’s screwdrivers. All it takes is a tap here, a chip there. And sometimes years go by without my doing anything to my bonsai.

“Any hard coral is eligible, but the branching species seem to catch the judges’ eyes,” Basslet said. “Though Alison Diesel won the last show with her miniature pillar coral. I think it was the extended polyps waving in the current that put her over the top.”

On shore, local businesses are bracing for the influx of coral bonsai enthusiasts the event brings to Blacktip Island.

“These fans are hard core, and the reef’s cordoned off during the judging,” said Christina Mojarra, manger of the Tail Spinner Lounge, overlooking Pinnacle Reef. “We installed underwater video cameras and doubled our number of TVs so fans can watch at the bar. Parking’s tight, so we’ll have valet parking, and a shuttle van for guests at the island’s resorts.

“They award the Golden Polyp trophy here in the dining room,” Mojarra said. “So we’re letting Dermott Bottoms and James Conlee drink free in exchange for to maintaining order. Last bonsai show the runners-up caused such a ruckus, it was a week before we could reopen.”

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