Category Archives: Scuba Diving

Blacktip Island Divemaster Discovers ‘Living Fossil’ Caribbean Coelacanth

coelacanth

A photo of the previously-unknown coelacanth relative discovered by Blacktip Island scuba divers Wednesday afternoon. (photo courtesy of Alberto Fernandez Fernandez)

A Blacktip Island divemaster scuba diving on the Caribbean island’s rugged east coast Wednesday discovered a previously-unknown fish, closely related to the ‘living fossil’ coelacanth native to the Indian Ocean.

“We went in from shore on a day off,” Eagle Ray Divers’ Alison Diesel said. “I shined my light under a ledge and Whammo! There’s this gnarly-ass fish I’d only seen in photos.

“I thought I was narked, but I shook my head a couple of times and it was still there,” Diesel said. “Alberto took photos to prove it. That sucker was as big as me. The fish, not Alberto.”

Marine biologists confirmed the photos were of a coelacanth-like fish.

“It’s not a coelacanth, but it’s certainly a Latimeriidae,” Tiperon University-Blacktip ichthyology chair George Grasby said. “Judging by the fins and scales, it probably dates to the early Eocene Epoch – just post K-T extinction event.

“We’re calling it the deelacanth, since that’s the next step up, alphabetically and evolution-wise,” Graysby said. “It also ties in with our tentative genus-species, since we’ve named it Latimeria dieselius after Alison.”

Researchers are keeping the deelacanth’s location and depth secret to safeguard the discovery.

“The last thing we need is some yahoo snagging this thing and selling it to the highest bidder,” marine biology professor Lucille Ray said. “All I’ll say is it’s down deeper than diving guests go, but that doesn’t rule out scuba cowboys or hand-line fishermen.

“Our researchers are the only ones diving there now, but they can’t stay that deep for long,” Ray said. “We’ve got technical gear coming in so we can equip everyone properly. We hope to find more than one dieselius and, ideally, a breeding population.”

Other scientists disputed how to best study the fish.

“Someone’s gotta bring a deelacanth to the lab so we can examine it properly,” TU-B visiting marine biology professor Chester Balao said. “Going down to look at it’s a fine thing, but it’s not doing anyone any good just swimming around down there. We’ve got to be able to cut one up and see what makes it tick.”

Local dive operations are launching technical diving programs in response to the discovery.

“They can’t keep this thing under wraps forever,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “There’s no secrets on Blacktip, and folks’ll pay top dollar to dive with something they’ve only seen on National Geographic.

“Only other place in the world to see these critters is East Africa and Indonesia,” Latner said. “All those live down around 300 feet, so we’ll be set up with mixed gasses, multi-tank rigs, the whole shebang. We’ve got ‘Have We Got A Deel For You’ t-shirts and caps and water bottles, too.”

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Lionfish Shortage Spurs Blacktip Island Fish Farm

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Local aquaculture enthusiasts hope their plan to raise lionfish in inland ponds will solve the lionfish shortage at island restaurants. (photo courtesy of George Graysby)


A shortage of invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish on Blacktip Island reefs has prompted local aquaculturists to launch a captive-breeding program this week to supply lionfish to island restaurants.

“We’re victims of our own success, really,” Blacktip Haven chef Jessie Catahoula said. “We put lionfish on the menu to encourage scuba divers to cull them off the reefs. The cullers did such a good job, there’s no lionfish left.

“Problem is, we’ve marketed the hell out of fresh lionfish tacos, ceviche, medallions, you name it,” Catahoula said. “Tourists come here expecting lionfish, and boy, do they get hacked off when we don’t have any. Flying the meat in from the big island’s killing our bottom line. Thankfully the fish nerds stepped in.”

Resident aquarium enthusiasts floated the idea of a fish farm.

“The restaurants tried substituting other types of fish, but customers caught on,” George Graysby said. “Captive breeding was the only viable solution. We have lots of aquariums, so this isn’t really that big of a jump.

“We still push culling and conservation and all, but going forward all the lionfish served on Blacktip will be farm raised,” Graysby said. “Farm-to-table lionfish, if you will. And we’re working on genetically modifying them, too, to make them venom-less. And bigger.”

Experts say the plan will boost the small Caribbean island’s economy.

“Lionfish is set to be the new tilapia,” Tiperon University-Blacktip economics professor Sally Port said. “Digging the ponds is already keeping two people employed full time. And once the place is up and running, it’ll need a full-time staff to maintain it.

“It’ll be six months before the first fish are ready for harvesting, but at that point, the process will be self sustaining,” Port said. “George and Belinda are starting the fry in aquariums this week and will transfer them to the ponds as soon as, well, as soon as the ponds are completed.”

Island environmentalists cautioned about the project’s potential downside.

“We’ve spent so much time and energy getting rid of these invasive pests, now George’s actively breeding as many of them as he can?” Harry Pickett said. “What happens when a big storm washes thousands of lionfish onto the reefs?

“They’ll wipe out the native reef fish in no time,” Pickett said. “We’ll be worse off than before,” Pickett said. “This is an ecological disaster waiting to happen, never mind the stink a farm like that’ll create.”

Farm backers brushed aside such worries.

“We’re digging the farm way inland where it’s safe from any storm surge,” Belinda Graysby said. “And it’s up by the Tailspinner bar where it won’t bother anyone. And even if it does, if the booby pond stink doesn’t scare people away the smell of a fish farm won’t, either.

“Worst case, if a big hurricane does flood the ponds, well, we’ve got an island full of trained cullers who can clear the reefs in no time,” she said. “Either way, the restaurants’ll get their fish.”

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Caribbean-Themed Medieval Dinner Theater Comes To Blacktip Island

medieval times

Detail from the marquee at Blacktip Island’s new medieval-style dinner theater, which opened this week at the Caribbean island’s public pier. (image courtesy of Piers Planck)

Blacktip Island entrepreneurs this week launched a tropical-themed Medieval dinner theater to celebrate the Caribbean island’s history and broaden its tourist appeal.

“On Blacktip the focus is on scuba diving, fishing and bird watching, and rightfully so,” said show impresario Piers ‘Doc’ Planck. “But the island has so much more to offer. That’s what we’re tapping into with this Middle Ages-style dinner-and-tournament.

“Most people don’t know Blacktip Island was a Knights Templar outpost in the 11th Century,” Planck said. “It was the Order’s sole naval base in the Western Hemisphere, and the survivors of the Friday the 13th massacre escaped to Blacktip with what was left of the Templar treasury.”

Show organizers are still fine tuning many of its details.

“We’re still feeling our way with staging and choreography,” Rosie Blenny said. “It’s mostly James Conlee and Dermott Bottoms in second-hand Aquaman costumes and pool floaties whacking each other with bamboo poles and yelling ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ But tourists love it.

“We made it aquatic-themed so it was more relevant to island visitors,” Blenny said. “Marketing’s tough, but that’ll change as word spreads. Knights in tights jousting with inflatable seahorses? That’s something people’ll tell their friends and neighbors about.”

The island’s business community is upbeat about the venture.

“Anything that gets people to the island is good, no matter how goofy it is,” Chamber of Commerce president Christina Mojarra said. “They’re staging it at Diddley’s Landing for now, and the audience brings its own chairs, but if this thing takes off, we’re looking at building a permanent stadium that can be used for other events, too.”

Not all island residents support the new show.

“The idea of the Knights Templar having a presence on Blacktip Island is ahistorical hooey,” island historian Smithson Altschul said. “It was the Hospitallers. Tourism income is all well and good, but not at the expense of historical fact.

“And Antonio Fletcher dressed as King Neptune presiding over the affair undercuts any Society for Creative Anachronism-style educational value it might have,” Altschul said. “It is hard to look away from, though. Like an auto accident or a boat wreck.”

Island visitors were generally positive about the show.

“I didn’t really get what was going on, or what the point of it was, but it was fun to watch . . . whatever it was,” Eagle Ray Cove guest Otto Korrecht said. “Honestly, if I understood it I may not have liked it as much.

“The food was, well, the ‘Templar Conch Chowder’ and ‘Hospitaller Halibut’ were dodgy, and the ‘Holy Land Ale’ was just warm beer with limeade in it,” Korrecht said. “But you didn’t really notice during the jousting, though. I’m guessing that’s a big part of the business model.”

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Singing Coral Head Highlights Blacktip Island Holiday Festivities

singing xmas coral

Gage Hoase and Alison Diesel wear Christmas tree worm caps Thursday night during the dress rehearsal of the Blacktip Island Acapella Society’s underwater Singing Coral Head. (photo courtesy of Nick Hobgood)

The Blacktip Island Acapella Society will eschew its traditional Singing Christmas Tree choral performance this Sunday night in favor of an underwater Singing Coral Head, with singers dressed as Christmas tree worms instead of ornaments, to celebrate the Caribbean island’s bond with its coral reefs.

“Instead of a choir in a giant tree, we’re doing a choir in a coral head,” director Donna Requin said. “We wanted to do something traditional, yet scuba themed, given the importance of scuba diving to the island.

“We’ll be giving Christmas favorites an aquatic twist,” Requin said. “The singers will wear big, bushy bonnets that mimic actual Christmas tree worms. It’s not some tacky holiday stunt, though. We’re being fully respectful of the holiday and the reef. We’re calling it A Merry Fishmas Choral Head.”

Songs include:

  • God Rest Ye Merry Jawfish
  • It Came Upon The Viz So Clear
  • Snapping Shrimp We Have Heard On High
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Night Dive
  • Fishmastime Is Here

Singers will perform in full-face masks, with songs played on underwater speakers.

“The masks muffle our voices a bit, and the hydrophones distort them, but that adds to the effect,” tenor Gage Hoase said. “The idea is to get people to see Christmas, and the reef, in a new light.

“Singing on scuba actually solved one of our problems,” Hoase said. “We needed a soprano, but no one could hit those high notes. Then Alison Diesel switched from air to heliox and BAM! She sounds like Maria Callas. In that range, anyway.”

Some in the community were critical of the concept.

“It’s another cheesy holiday train wreck,” Blacktip Haven resort owner Elena Havens said. “Last year’s underwater Nativity scene made from old tires was an absolute embarrassment. We’re still getting trashed on Trip Advisor for it.

“‘Different’ doesn’t always mean ‘creative,’ especially when it trivializes the holiday,” Havens said. “People singing underwater wearing silly hats? That’s not Christmas. And what about people who don’t dive? Our church caroling is inclusive of everyone. Who celebrates Christmas.”

Requin brushed aside the criticism.

“The ‘caroling at the church’ audience has been dwindling for years,” she said. “Our choral head will be a breath of fresh air. Or freshly-compressed air.

“For those who don’t dive, or don’t care to dive, the singing can be heard quite clearly from a boat,” Requin said. “It’s quite ethereal. And non divers can also enjoy the performance via a live feed in the Sand Spit bar, where they’re welcome to sing along.”

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Blacktip Island Role Players Create Durgons and Dragons Game

durgons and dragons

The common black durgon is a major danger in the new Durgons and Dragons role-playing game developed by a group of Blacktip Island scuba-diving gaming aficionados. (photo courtesy of NOAA)

A group of Blacktip Island underwater role-playing game enthusiasts this week played their first rounds of their newly-developed Durgons and Dragons on Jawfish Reef to celebrate the upcoming end of hurricane. season.

“It’s a riff on Dungeons and Dragons, played underwater,” game developer Lee Helm said. “The Dive Master walks players through underwater adventures, usually quests to find treasure or explore sunken pirate ships or caves.

“There’s no magic per se, but the in-game reef is way different than the real reef,” Helm said. “Sharks and orcas and krakens are the obvious dangers. But all the normal reef fish can be deadly, too.”

As in Dungeons and Dragons, players must navigate dangers and defeat monsters.

“Parrotfish, triggerfish, nurse sharks, even other divers can kill you,” gamer Edwin Chub said. “And you have to watch for swarms of brown chomises. Chromii. Whatever.

“The real terrors, though, are the leafy sea dragons and black durgons,” Chub said. “Just yesterday a durgon chewed through 10 player characters. We’re still recovering from that.”

With players on scuba, game time is limited by air consumption.

“When you’re out of air, the game’s over. Heavy breathers put the entire team at risk,” said player Harry Blenny. “You’re basically playing against game hazards, other players and time. People meditate beforehand to save air.

“It gets vicious. Light breathers try to kill off the air hogs’ characters so the game will last longer,” Blenny said. “And the air-suckers gang up on other players to get those characters killed off. We had plans for surface-supplied air to avoid all that, but decompression sickness issues scotched that since there’s no barometric chamber on the island.”

Some residents remained unimpressed.

“I really don’t get it, but I guess I don’t have to,” cook Jessie Catahoula said. “It’s goofy, but at least it keeps Lee and his buddies out of sight and away from me.”

Players emphasized the game’s positive aspects.

“It teaches people to work together as a team, not knowing if one of the characters is a Random Bad Diver,” Helm said. “When an RBD starts flailing there’s a 20 percent chance the character closest to him drowns.

“Just this morning my 39th-level heliox diver got bent on a rogue upwelling because of a Baddie,” Helm said. “I had to start over with a character that’s barely nitrox certified.”

Others touted the game’s growing popularity.

“There’s already Durgons and Dragons clubs on other islands,” Blenny said. “We’re gonnna have a D and D tournament over the holidays, too. As word spreads, our ultimate goal is to have some women join us. Or talk to us.”

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New Boat Marshals Safeguard Blacktip Island Divers

boat marshals

Scuba divers behaving badly on Blacktip Island dive boats have prompted leaders on the small Caribbean island to assign undercover security officers on charter boats. (photo courtesy of Gage Hoase)

In response to increased altercations on Blacktip Island dive boats, island leaders this week deputized multiple, incognito Boat Marshals, based on the Air Marshal program for commercial aviation, to safeguard dive guests.

“There’s been an uptick in verbal and physical confrontations on boats,” island mayor Jack Cobia said. “Whether because of crowded conditions, bad weather, or just people being cranky these days, it was getting out of hand.

“The shouting matches between dives were bad enough,” Cobia said. “But when guests started flinging weight belts at each other because someone silted a swim through, we had to act. There’s only one island constable, and Rafe can only be so many places at once. He needed help.”

The marshals are former constables with arrest powers, randomly assigned to various dive boats.

“There was no choice. We were taking in the shorts on TripAdvisor,” Sandy Bottoms’ Beach Resort owner Sandy Bottoms said. “And our dive staff’s not trained to get physical with guests. Not that way, anyway.

“Now we’re putting trained officers on the boats, in mufti, looking like any other guest,” Bottoms said. “Usually in tacky shirts and shorts. Or not. You never know. But any yahoo steps out of line, they’ll have a marshal on them like a duck on a June bug.”

The island’s dive professionals welcomed the move.

“It makes our job way less stressful, knowing there’s someone to deal with a-holes,” Blacktip Haven boat captain Dusty Blenny said. “Yesterday some dude got up in my grill when I wouldn’t go to Lucifer’s Grotto. Tried to grab the wheel. The marshal du jour thumped him good and locked him in the head.

“They can disarm you of knives, lionfish spears and tank bangers, you name it,” Blenny said. “Today one stopped a snorkel fight before it could start.”

Dive guests appreciate the change.

“It’s reassuring seeing action taken, on the boats and underwater,” Club Scuba Doo guest Donna Requin said. “This morning a knife fight broke out between a photographer hogging an eel and another photographer who shoved her aside.

“We were all in shock when, WHOOSH, in came a marshal who dragged them to the surface,” Requin said. “By the time we surfaced, the two had already been skiffed off to the jail.”

Some officials worry the program may be a victim of its own success,

“There’s so many incidents, and so few marshals, we’re having trouble keeping their identities secret,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “We keep disguising them, but they still get recognized because of all the YouTube videos.

“Once word gets out, we’re hoping divers’ll behave themselves so we can phase out the B.M.s,” Marquette said. “At that point we’ll repurpose them for bar security Friday and Saturday nights.”

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Blacktip Island Divemaster Discovers New Fish Species

new fish

Blacktip Island marine biologists say a fish photographed by an island divemaster may be a new species of wrasse. (photo courtesy of Barry Peters)

A Blacktip Island scuba guide diving on his day off Wednesday discovered what scientists say is a previously-unknown reef fish species on the Wrasse Hole Wall dive site.

“Marina dared me to go to 150, and when I got there I saw a weird little fish,” Eagle Ray Divers divemaster Lee Helm said. “I shined my light on it and the eyes jumped out at me. I was gobsmacked.

“Back on the boat, people said I was narked,” Helm said. “I had a photo to prove it, though. I was going to name it after me, but I owed Dermott money and I like my face as-is, so I named it after him instead.”

The fish, tentatively dubbed Wrassius bottomsis, is probably a relative of the common Caribbean hairy wrasse, marine biologists said.

“We can’t say for certain without collecting a specimen, killing it and cutting it up – and we’re sending a team down tomorrow to do just that – but it appears to be part of the wrasse family,” Tiperon University-Blacktip ichthyology chair Ernesto Mojarra said. “We have to be sure, though. Anything Lee’s involved with is usually full of crap. It does look kind of like Dermott, though I’d never say that to his face.”

Island scuba operations wasted no time promoting the find.

“We’re running packed boats out to Wrasse Hole Wall two, three times a day,” Eagle Ray Cove Resort owner Rich Skerritt said. “Sure, the staff’s got its hands full keeping the guests above 100 feet, but that’s why we pay them minimum wage.

“We’re doing Bottoms Wrasse t-shirts, wrasse hats and Speedos, too,” Skerritt said. “And our own Wrasse Wipe sunscreen. Our bookings are already up in just the last to days.”

Dive professionals worry the discovery may encourage unsafe diving.

“If Lee wants to go that deep and get himself bent on his own time, that’s his business,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “Problem is, all our guests want to get down that deep, too, to see his damn fish.

“There’s only so much control a couple of staff can have over 20 divers,” Latner said. “Before, it was like herding cats. Now it’s pure chaos. We snagged three divers at 140 just this morning. Someone’s gonna get hurt, or worse, before this is all over.”

Other residents were less unconcerned.

“Divers go deep all the time. If they’re strong, they’ll survive,” Dermott Bottoms said. “Important thing is that’s my wrasse everybody’s trying to see. My wrasse’s gonna be all over the internet now, you know.”

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