A Blacktip Islander holds up a donkey dung sea cucumber during the annual spring spawning aggregation in the Blacktip Island shallows Thursday. The Caribbean island’s Sea Cucumber Festival commemorates the role the echinoderms played in Blacktip Island’s history. (photo courtesy of James St. John)
The annual sea cucumber migration heralds Blacktip Island’s spring Sea Cucumber Festival at the Heritage House this weekend. The event celebrates the marine echinoderms’ vital role in the small Caribbean island’s history.
“Like clockwork, they come in from the deep reefs to breed in the shallow lagoon the first week in May,” Tiperon University-Blacktip biology professor Ernesto Mojarra said. “It’s hard to notice at first, but before you know it, the shallows are jam-packed with them.
“It’s like a field of slowly-undulating dung,” Mojarra said. “Beautiful, really. They cluster in the mangrove roots to spawn. And always return to the place they were hatched. We think. They all kind of look alike.”
The cucumbers were key to early settlers’ survival.
“The original islanders would never have survived without sea cucumbers,” island historian Smithson Altschul said. “Back in the day, sea cucumbers were a major food source during lean times.
“When they migrated to shallow enough water, settlers’d scoop them up, sun-dry them and store them to eat later,” Altschul said. “The festival commemorates that with sea cucumber salad, stew, kebabs and jerky. Dermott Bottoms even cooks up sea cucumber rum in his bathtub.”
The migration also draws international sea cucumber experts.
“This is the only place in the world with the unique combination of deep reefs, accessible cuts and shallow mangrove coasts that allows us to document the entire migration start to finish,” visiting biologist Marlin Bleu said. “Any place else, you’re never sure if the cucumber you were tracking on the reef is the same one you’re studying in the shallows.
“Other islands, we tried radio tracking, but transponders don’t work more than a few hours, what with the slime and all,” Bleu said. “Here, the only issue is the locals eat the cucumbers faster than we can study them. There’s conservation laws, but they go by the wayside during the big migration.”
Many locals bristled at the criticism.
“Of course we eat them,” long-time resident Clete Horn said. “What else are you supposed to do? It’s our heritage. Daddy and Granddaddy went cuking, you can bet I will, too.
“It’s not like there’s a shortage of cukes. Just look at them,” Horn said. “The geeks want to study them, there’s plenty for everyone. Just stay out of my way.’
In addition to food and drink, the festival will also feature live music by local bands The Stinging Hydroids, Scratcher Wrasse and the Slippery Dicks and local favorite the Social Morays.
“It’s Blacktip. We turn pretty much anything into a party,” Altschul said. “Whatever it takes to have sanctioned public drunkenness, really.”