Two rufous-spotted grouper, stuffed by underwater taxidermy students at Blacktip Island’s Eagle Ray Cove, are on display in the Caribbean island’s Last Ballyhoo bar. (photo courtesy of Jacklee)
A Blacktip Island scuba instructor launched a new underwater taxidermy specialty course this week to the delight of students and the dismay of several local civic groups.
“Sport fishermen always want to mount trophy fish, but fish are tough to stuff,” Eagle Ray Divers instructor Gage Hoase said. “You lose the colors in minutes and the skin degrades as you work it. People usually take a cast of the fish, then pour a copy in resin. Underwater taxidermy looks more real than that.
“Taxidermy underwater keeps the skin fresh and malleable,” Hoase said. “We stretch skin over a mold, cure it on the pier, then touch it up with paint. Students start on yellowtail snappers and damselfish, then work up to bigger stuff.”
Students raved about the classes.
“I couldn’t believe how realistic the parrotfish I mounted was,” said Kitty Mitchell. “There’s no comparison to a resin casting. It has a stronger smell to it, but that just lets you know it’s real. And adds to the value.
“Gage walked us through how to use the knives and curved needles and hide stretchers,” Mitchell said. “And we make the molds from washed-up turtle grass, so it helps with beach cleanup, too.”
Others noted the hazards of underwater taxidermy.
“You’d think the biggest worry would be sharks, but it’s really those swarms of little snappers. They bite chunks out of your fingers when they go after the skin you’re working,” Palometa Fischer said. “Sharks are a concern, sure, but we have spotters to keep them away. Those snappers are vicious.”
The course drew unexpected ire Thursday afternoon when two groups picketed Eagle Ray Resort, in an effort to cancel future classes.
“Blacktip’s famous for its marine park, for protecting its marine life, and now Gage is teaching a class on how to skin fish and stick them on the wall?” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals president and treasurer Harry Pickett said. “People come here to swim with live fish, not make grotesques. This runs counter to the island’s ethos, and we’ll be protesting roadside until it stops.”
A second group of picketers launched a separate protest nearby.
“Gage and them’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist,” said protest organizer Dermott Bottoms. “Blacktip don’t need taxis, you know. Don’t have a car, or your bike breaks, someone’ll give you a ride. Taxis’ll destroy Blacktip. What’s next after that, buses? Trolley cars?”
Hoase was quick to defend the course.
“Sport fishing is just as much a part of Blacktip as scuba diving,” he said. “We only stuff fish caught outside the marine park. And we do the taxidermy outside it, too.
“Harry’s fine with drinking a beer under the mounted marlins at the Ballyhoo, but he’s protesting how those marlins get made? That’s hypocrisy. And as for Dermott, I have no idea what he’s talking about. But that’s nothing new.”
Hoase also addressed the students’ safety concerns.
“We’re working on building a walled-off taxidermy pool by the dock that keeps other fish out,” he said. “We tried protective netting, but a couple of barracuda managed to get through the mush and things got ugly.”