Monthly Archives: February 2020

Stressed Blacktip Island Groupers Get Virtual Reality Goggles

vr goggles for grouper

One of Blacktip Island’s over-stressed Nassau grouper confronts a photographer on the small Caribbean island’s Hammerhead Hole reef Thursday. (photo courtesy of q. phia)

A Blacktip Island conservation group has teamed up with local scientists to adapt virtual reality headsets to fish in an effort to save the Caribbean island’s stressed Nassau grouper population.

“We’ve had a marked uptick in the number of visitors to the island, in divers on the reefs,” Reef Stasi president Lucille Ray said. “That’s got the Nassaus freaked out, especially with camera-wielding divers chasing them around the reef, despite the dive staffs’ efforts.

“The groupers are high-tailing it from guests, even when divers point out lionfish for them to eat,” Ray said. “They’re not eating or interacting with other fish. Healthy, happy grouper are an indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem, and ours are severely stressed. As the grouper go, so goes the reef.”

Scientists are concerned about the impact on grouper populations.

“Nassaus only spawn once a year, and now’s the time they do it,” local ichthyologist Goby Graysby said. “Problem is, with them so stressed, they didn’t spawn with February’s full moon. And they’re not showing any signs spawning anytime soon, they’re so wound up.

“Nassaus are endangered worldwide, so this is potentially a hammer blow to the species’ survival,” Graysby said. “We had to take action, and banning divers would’ve killed our island dive industry. Adapted goggles seemed the obvious next step.”

The practicalities of that solution came from a university engineering experiment.

“We’d already been working on goggles for sight-impaired fish, so it was just a minor shift for us,” Tiperon University-Blacktip optical engineering professor Glaseid Snapper said. “Our goggles show grouper a deserted reef so they’ll relax. They also dial back the groupers’ lateral line sensitivity, so they don’t notice movements in the water around them as much.

“We’re beta testing it on a few fish on one of the more popular reefs,” Snapper said. “After that, we’ll outfit as many fish as possible to get them calmed down and getting jiggy with each other again.”

Large-scale goggle production will be handled by island scuba manufacturer Bamboo You.

“We’ll crank out as many of these puppies as needed,” Bamboo You sales manager Christina Mojarra said. “Guests can also adopt a grouper, for a fee, to help offset the cost of the units. It’s an ambitious plan, but we’re up to the challenge.”

Environmentalists stressed the goggles are only a short-term solution.

“We need to modify the underwater behavior of dive guests so groupers don’t get so wigged out,” animal rights activist Harry Pickett said. “The underwater paparazzi behavior has got to stop. This is a canary in the coal mine moment—if this stress spreads to other fish species, they may all stop breeding.

“We’re making it a real community effort,” Pickett said. “Staff at all the resorts are educating guests on how to properly interact with our finned friends going forward. Until this crisis is over, we’re all groupers.”

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Blacktip Island Resort Uses Conveyor Belts To Load Divers

conveyor belt for divers

One Blacktip Island scuba company has begun hauling divers aboard with commercial conveyor belts to cut down on boarding ladder injuries in rough seas. (photo courtesy of Leah Shore)

A Blacktip Island scuba resort stirred controversy Wednesday when it announced plans to use conveyor belts commonly used in the fishing industry to haul divers back onto its dive boats.

“This’s a safety issue. I don’t know why folks are getting all up in arms,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “It’s winter. The seas are rough. A lot of our divers don’t understand how dangerous the boarding ladders can be. When there’s six-foot swells rolling through, and divers’re lollygagging on the ladders getting their fins off, that dog’ll bite you.

“This isn’t some ride at Disney. People can get hurt,” Latner said. “They’re on the ladder for four, five waves, getting the living snot beat out of them. We’re tired of bandaging them up. And cleaning up the decks.”

The resort’s solution was to install marine conveyor belts to lift divers onboard.

“It’s a variation on the belts commercial fishing boats use to land their catch,” Eagle Ray Cove owner Rich Skerritt said. “We call it the ‘Magic Carpet’ that sweeps divers back aboard. Guests swim up, grab ahold, and the belt feeds them up to the midships gunwale where our staff can sort them out.

“Some of our guests are big people, too, with lots of weight in their BCs,” Skerritt said. “This makes things way easier on our staff. It’s good for divers, good for our divemasters and keeps out ladders from getting damaged. There’s really no downside.”

Many dive guests are not pleased with the new system.

“It’s not dignified, being dragged up a ramp like that, arse over appetite, and plopped on the deck like a hooked cod,” Carrie Coney said. “They’re treating paying guests like netted fish. And likening us to beached whales.”

Others praised the new belts.

“For me, it added another bit of fun to the dive,” Rosie Blenny said. “I got to look at fish, then had a nice ride afterwards. If people are worried about looking like beached whales, well, that’s not the Magic Carpet’s fault.”

Eagle Ray Divers staff stressed the belts’ efficiency.

“It’s not about the guests liking it or not. It’s about getting them back onboard without bloodshed,” divemaster Marina DeLow said. “They bearhug the ladder 20, 30 seconds in rough seas, it gets messy. We tell them to think of it as the moving carpet on the bunny slope at a ski resort.”

Other resorts are watching the belt-loaded divers closely.

“If it works out and cuts down injuries, we may try the same thing ourselves,” Club Scuba Doo owner Ham Pilchard said. “We’re looking at installing a forward-facing belt that’ll scoop surfaced divers up as the boat idles past without them having to do anything but just float there.”

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Old-School Blacktip Island Divers Create Living History Museum

old dive gear museum

Vintage dive gear owners on Blacktip Island have joined forces to create the region’s first living history museum focused on scuba diving equipment and techniques from diving’s early days. (BTT staff photo / Clete Horn)

A group of old-school Blacktip Island scuba divers this week combined their antiquated dive equipment to create a living history museum celebrating the small Caribbean island’s rich scuba traditions, members said.

“Instead of throwing out all our old gear, we put it all in one place to show modern divers what scuba diving was like in the day,” Blacktip Island Mossback Club president Jay Valve said. “Dive ops won’t let us on the boats with this stuff, so we put it in glass cases where visitors could look at it. That was depressing though, so we decided to do demonstration dives with our gear from shore a couple times a week.

“Divers today don’t realize how easy they’ve got it, what with their floatie vests and extra regulators and fancy pressure gauges,” Valve said. “There’s still plenty of life in this old equipment. If this kit was good enough for Lloyd Bridges, it’s good enough for us.”

Club members echoed Valve’s sentiments.

“The dive industry generates a ton of money, but it’s done it by sissifying the sport,” Clete Horn said. “That’s why we do dives to show folks how scuba used to be an adventure. We stay shallow and close to shore so snorkelers and non-divers can see everything. Any guests want to have a go with the gear, we’ll suit them up and turn them loose.

“These’re divers who never breathed off a double-hose reg,” Horn said. “Or felt the thrill of a 10-inch dive machete strapped to their leg. This is how real divers dived. It’s a great experience for dive guests, and shows, really, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Some in the community don’t share club members’ enthusiasm.

“Sure, real divers dived with those museum pieces. Real stupid divers,” Blacktip Haven resort owner Elena Havens said. “Scuba equipment has evolved. Jay and his gang haven’t. This whole concept is a tribute to how wrong Darwin really was. I’m not sure how anyone survived it. Then or now.”

“What in the world does anyone need a knife like that for, fighting sharks?” Havens said. “All it’ll take is one yahoo getting stabbed, or drowning while using this junk, to do major damage to our bookings. They need to leave all this gear behind glass where it belongs.”

Diving guests have embraced the vintage gear.

“I tried the double-hose reg and the single-seal, fishbowl mask yesterday, and it was a blast,” island visitor Mary Wrasse said. “Sure, the mask leaked like a sieve and I damn-near aspirated half the ocean trying to clear it, but it really put me in touch with what diving was a generation or two ago. And not having an air gauge really racheted up the adventure.”

Community leaders were cautiously supportive.

“This is the stuff the Blacktip Island tourism product was built on,” dive industry watchdog Wade Soote said. “As far as we know, this is the first program of its kind in the Caribbean. That’s bound to draw some extra visitors to the island. And no one’s gotten hurt so far, that we know of, so there’s no down side.”

Club members are encouraged by the shows of support.

“I’m proud to dive with Granddaddy’s regulator and Daddy’s mask and knife,” Horn said. “Folks not only survived using this stuff, they thrived. Put food on the table with it for generations.

“We’re getting more old-time gear for the museum as the old timers pass,” Horn said. “Not from diving, of course. From their families, after. Somebody dies diving, makes it damned tough to recover the gear.”

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Dirigible Service Planned For Blacktip Island

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An antique-themed airship, based on modern designs, will soon be plying the skies between Tiperon and Blacktip islands if its promoters can get the ambitious project off the ground. (photo courtesy of lordkinbote)

Travelers bound for Blacktip Island in the future will have the option of arriving from Tiperon Island via antique lighter-than-air dirigible, say the service’s creators.

“We’re looking at a commuter service that’s more ecofriendly and more stylish than petroleum-burning aircraft,” island entrepreneur Rich Skerritt said. “An old-school airship seemed perfect. It’s slower than an airplane, sure, but it’s as fast as a boat without the worry of rough seas, and it’s way better for the environment. We’re calling it ‘One Nation In Dirigible.’

“We’ll trick out the gondola in Victorian style, like you’d see in an old Jules Verne movie,” Skerritt said. “It’ll have comfy armchairs, a full bar, a pipe-smoking lounge, the whole shebang. We’re playing up the nostalgia to draw passengers who want more from their travel than just a quick commute.”

One Nation In Dirigible’s co-creator said the slow service is a major selling point.

“Upwind, Tiperon to Blacktip, it’ll take about six hours,” Piers ‘Doc’ Planck said. “Downwind, maybe three or four, depending on the wind. We tell passengers not to think of it as a slow ride, but as the bookends of a stylish vacation.

“‘We’ll get there when we get there’ is our motto,” Planck said. “It’s not much different from sailing, really. Passengers can sit back, enjoy the ride and channel their inner steampunk. There’s an interest in old-ee time-ee stuff these days.”

Interest in the service has been high, despite the group not yet having an aircraft.

“Sure, it’s a niche market, but people’re willing to pay top dollar for it,” chamber of commerce president Goldy Gobie said. “They’ve sold a bunch of advance tickets. We’re hoping a unique service like this really draws a new kind of visitor to the island.”

Travelers say a period airship adds an air of glamor to their trips.

“I’ve always regretted being born too young to experience blimp travel,” Patty Palometta said. “Now I can find out firsthand what it’s like to cruise along above the clouds with no sound but the wind whistling by the windows. Unless it catches fire.”

One Nation In Dirigible’s creators downplayed safety concerns.

“Helium’ll provide lift, not hydrogen like with the airship whose name we don’t say, but that starts with ‘H,’” Skerritt said. “Tire company blimps fly thousands of hours every year without a mishap.

“We’re still tweaking the design until we find what works best,” Skerritt said. “Then we’ll decorate it like your grandma’s sitting room and we’re in business. It may take a while to get it just right, but that shouldn’t discourage folks from buying advance tickets. Any tickets you buy today will be honored. Someday. Somehow.”

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