Blacktip Island’s new underwater walking trails offer buoyancy-challenged divers the chance to see some of the Caribbean island’s most iconic underwater sights, such as the grotto at Jawfish Reef. (Photo courtesy of Val Schrader/Marine Parks)
The Tiperon Islands Marine Parks Department has teamed with Blacktip Island’s Skerritt Construction to build a network of underwater trails, aimed at reef conservation, around some of the island’s most popular dive sites. The first trail was officially opened Thursday afternoon.
“The coral on these dive sites is being destroyed by all the divers,” Marine Parks spokesperson Val Schrader said. “They grab coral. They kneel on coral. They stand on coral. They destroy hundreds of years of growth in an instant.
“We were told banning divers was off the table,” Schrader said. “Instead, these trails will give divers a place to stand and kneel and drag their gauges without killing anything. Think of them as pre-killed zones to protect the reef.”
The paths are laid out over sand and across stretches of dead and severely-damaged coral identified by Marine Parks personnel. Trail building was done by Skerritt Construction.
“We use coral-safe marine concrete, stuff that’s been in use since Roman times,” said Skerritt Construction owner Rich Skerritt. “The pointy-heads from Parks mark off where the path should go, and we go to town.
“It’s a Godsend for the island, really,” Skerritt said. “Topside’s about all paved over. We were having to lay people off.”
Local reaction was generally positive.
“I had a lovely dive just this morning,” Blacktip resident Edwin Chub said. “They put in benches so you can sit and ponder a single coral head.
“And when the current picked up, well, there’s also aluminum pegs to pull yourself along, or just hold yourself in place,” Chub said. “They really did think of everything.”
Others were not convinced.
“This sends entirely the wrong message – that it’s OK to touch the reef,” said Harry Picket, president of the Blacktip Island Pelagic Society. “Even on dead coral there’re still polyps trying to reestablish themselves. Most dive guests don’t know dead coral from live coral from their own butts.”
Local dive operators, though, hailed the trails’ potential.
“They’re perfect for Discover Scuba Diving students,” Eagle Ray Divers dive operations manager Ger Latner. “Our instructors can just drag the punters over the paved stretches and not worry so much about buoyancy. It’s good for the reef and divemaster blood pressure.
“We’re also offering hard-hat diving courses,” Latner said. “You can strap on a helmet and lead boots and walk the trails if you want. For an upcharge.”
Marine Parks officials say the trails also open more opportunities for visiting divers.
“We’re building shore entry sites near all the main underwater trails,” Schrader said. “We also have trail maps, and underwater rangers to make sure no one gets lost. Or strays off the trails and into the coral.”