Category Archives: Scuba Diving

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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Blacktip Island Divers To Swim Underwater 5K For Charity

Underwater 5K

The Blacktip Island Running Club will host the inaugural underwater 5K fun dive Saturday morning to raise money for charity. (photo courtesy of Summitandbeach)

Race-minded Blacktip Island scuba divers are slated to swim a five-kilometer underwater course around the Caribbean island’s west coast reefs Saturday morning to raise money for charity, race organizers said.

“It’ll be like any other 5K, just underwater,” Blacktip Island Running Club president Val Schrader said. “We figured since most diving guests kick non-stop and cover that much territory every dive anyway, why not turn that to good and raise money for a much-beloved charitable organization?

“Anybody who’s certified is welcome to join in,” Schrader said. “It’s about participating and having fun for most participants. Only a few are actually fast enough to win, and they’ve been training ever since we announced the race last month. All ages are encouraged, and there’ll be awards for the winners of each age division. We’ll even have an under-10 division snorkeling category.”

Organizers said the logistics were more challenging than with a terrestrial race.

“For a road race you just measure out five kilometers on your car’s odometer and call it good,” club member Clete Horn said. “Underwater, though, distance measurement gets trickier. We had a team out with big tape measures plotting out a course around multiple dive sites. And a second team following behind, double-checking their math.

“We also had to steer the course away from coral as much as possible,” Horn said. “We’ve got 5K of dive reel line held up by stakes in the sand, in a meandering loop from Jawfish Reef to Hammerhead Ledge and back again.”

The race will start and end at Diddley’s Landing public pier.

“Racers’ll line up at the pier’s edge, and when we blow the whistle, they’ll all giant stride in at once,” Schrader said. “It’s about a nine-foot drop, so that entry may be the most exciting part of the race.

“We’ll post judges underwater at each turn to make sure no one cuts corners,” Schrader said. “The first diver to climb back up the steps beside the pier will win the coveted Golden Flipper award. Well, we’re pretty sure it’ll be coveted. Eventually.”

Spectators will be able to watch the race from the pier.

“We threw up some scaffolding in case people want a better view, but we’re really not expecting a huge crowd, what with the race starting at seven in the morning,” Port Authority head Rocky Shore said. “We’ll be serving hot coffee and cold bloody Marys for spectators in need, and after-race divers.”

Participants are using a variety of strategies to prepare for the race.

“Lee Helm’s blabbing about greasing himself up, like for an English Channel swim,” Alison Diesel said. “But, knowing Lee, that’s just an excuse to rub Crisco all over himself and wear his Speedo in public.

“Me, I’ve doing wind sprints on every dive this week, covering as many sites as possible,” Diesel said. “My thighs are screaming, but my cardio’s killer. Carb up big time tonight, and I’ll be taking home that Golden Flipper tomorrow.”

Proceeds from the race will go to the Helping Hands Monkey Hands service-animal providers.

 

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Blacktip Island Uses Fin-Kick Technology To Generate Electricity

fin-kick energy

Blacktip Island scuba divers now have the option of generating electricity for the Caribbean island’s power grid by attaching modified wave converters to their fins. (photo courtesy of jqpubliq)

Scuba divers on Blacktip Island this week began generating energy for the Caribbean island’s electric grid with their fin kicks to augment the island’s electrical infrastructure, public works officials said.

“Electricity’s expensive on this little rock, and burning diesel to generate it is hell on the environment,” Department of Public Works chief Stoney MacAdam said. “We’re going green and sustainable by strapping mini wave energy converters to divers’ fins and offloading the power they produce into the power grid.

“We don’t have the funding to launch a large-scale offshore facility, but the dive operations have helped defray the cost of these person-scaled oscillating surge converters,” MacAdam said. “Volunteer divers clip them on their fins, run a wire up their legs, and the energy produced gets stored in a battery pack on their BC. They turn the batteries in to the dive shops, the shops offload the electricity and the divers get discounted diving.”

The program is not without its hitches.

“We’re still in the pilot stage, but it’s been good overall, with only a couple of minor electrocutions” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “Participating guests get a discount on their diving commensurate with how much electricity they generate, and volunteers are lining up despite the occasional zap.

“The big worry was how the batteries would hold up, but they’re doing fine,” Latner said. “With the lithium-ion puppies we’re using, you can slam power into them, then pound it back out without any negative effect. And the battery packs come with a quick-release buckle in case they overheat.”

Island visitors hailed the program.

“We’re helping the environment and getting a discount,” Gina Marlin said. “My husband and I made a game of it. We kick as big as we can, as fast as we can, to create as much power as possible. Then on safety stops, we race around the boat to make sure our batteries are jam packed.

“The only drawback so far is my collector battery drained some, and I didn’t get full credit for all the juice I produced,” Marlin said. “Whether that was a glitch or a bait-and-switch, I didn’t get nearly the credit I should have. Trip Advisor’s getting a smoking review about that.”

Some island dive staff are unhappy with the program.

“Clean energy’s good, but now we have yahoos doing big-ass flutter kicks to get their mondo discounts,” divemaster Alison Diesel said. “The punters are blasting up sand and kicking the crap out of the reef just to save a few bucks. End of the day, this is worse for the coral.

“We beg people to use smaller kicks, to scull, so they don’t silt up the reef” Diesel said. “Now this is electric fin BS has them doing the opposite. What’s next, overweighting everyone so they kill even more coral?”

Officials remained optimistic.

“The scuba hippies can complain about damaged coral all they want, but this is good for the island overall,” MacAdam said. “The upside of this far outweighs some isolated reef damage.”

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Blacktip Island Celebrates Post-Christmas Kickboxing Day

Kickboxing Day II

Winner Clete Horn, left, and defending champion Rocky Shore square off in Thursday evening’s final bout of Blacktip Island’s annual Kickboxing Day festivities. The day-long event celebrates Colonial islanders’ struggles against Caribbean pirates. (Photo courtesy of Rudolph A. Furtado)

Blacktip Island residents Thursday celebrated post-Christmas Kickboxing Day with martial arts contests, children’s games and a cook-off at Diddley’s Landing public pier, sponsored by the Caribbean island’s Seaman’s Society.

“The festival started in Colonial times as a way to practice community defensive techniques,” Blacktip Island historian Smithson Altschul said. “Blacktip’s original settlers developed a unique fighting style to combat the region’s pirates. Every Blacktipper was required to learn to fight on land and at sea.’

“The original Kickboxing Days allowed islanders to celebrate Boxing Day while testing their skills against other settlers,” Altschul said. “Now it’s as much a part of the holidays as tacky Christmas lights, overcooked turkey and third-rate college football.”

This year’s festivities began with traditional island feats of endurance.

“We kicked things off with the 5K underwater pub crawl,” said Blacktip Island Seaman’s Society president Jay Valve. “A combination of oxygen-rich, nitrox-filled scuba cylinders and mimosas at each station help shake off any lingering holiday hangovers.

“After that, the Leftover-Off ran through mid-afternoon,” Valve said. “It’s amazing the variety of delicacies island folks can cobble together from holiday leftovers. Finalists this year included stuffing pancakes with cranberry syrup, frozen green bean casserole pops and deep-fried candied sweet potatoes.”

Some residents focused on the day’s physical contests.

“No K-Day’s complete without the Destruction of the Christmas Playlists,” Eagle Ray Cove divemaster Gage Hoase said. “Nothing makes the season bright quite like copying a holiday playlist to a CD, then flinging it as far as you can across the bay. With this year’s north wind, we had a couple nearly break the record.”

The highlight was the evening’s kickboxing competition. As ever, contestants were encouraged to compete in appropriate seasonal attire.

“This year I fought off Santa, two elves and Jesus,” said winner Clete Horn, who opted for reindeer attire. “One elf was a kick-heavy tang soo do dude. Then, in the finals, Jesus gave me fits with that monkey kung fu of his. But I whomped him in the end.”

Event organizers noted the festivities’ unifying qualities.

“At its heart, Kickboxing Day is a uniquely Blacktip tradition that brings the community together during the holidays,” Valve said. “We had smaller rings where kids could strap on gloves and footpads and just wail on each other. After an afternoon of that, and a shot of brandy, the kiddos sleep like logs.”

Residents agreed Kickboxing Day are an integral part of the island’s holidays.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year on Blacktip Island,” Ginger Bass said. “It’s cathartic, really. Nothing helps you cast off the old year, and gets you excited about the new one, quite like seeing someone who pissed you off get laid out with a roundhouse kick to the head. I still have one of Lee Helm’s molars from last year’s quarterfinals.”

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Blacktip Island Braces For Black Friday Shoppers

Gift World Souvenir Shop

The Eagle Ray Cove resort gift store staff is prepped for day-after-Thanksgiving shoppers during Friday morning’s Blacktip Friday sales event. (photo courtesy of Richie Diesterheft)

Blacktip Island retailers readied their staffs and stores Thursday for the Caribbean island’s post-Thanksgiving ‘Blacktip Friday’ holiday shopping event.

“It’s not quite the Black Friday craziness you see in the U.S.,” said Sandy Bottoms’ Beach Resort general manager Kay Valve, “but it can get wild, in an island sort of way. Everything’s in the gift shop’s marked down. Slightly. And guests are already scoping us out.

“We’re not expecting a massive rush, but we’ll unbar the doors at 4 a.m. just in case,” Valve said. “There’s tons of tourists on island right now, and they really love hunting for the perfect tropical tchotchke to take back as a gift. And a pre-dawn fight for it makes it more of a prize.”

Other resort gift shops made similar preparations.

“There’s not a lot of people at the resort, but our gift shop’s pretty small, so we’ve prepped accordingly,” Blacktip Haven owner Elena Havens said. “There’s been rumblings of a pre-dawn rush, so we have extra stock in a shed out back just in case. And Frederick from the kitchen’ll be on hand with his wooden spoon for security.

“It is Blacktip Island, though, so ‘discount’ doesn’t mean much,” Havens said. “We’ll be handing out free rum punch to shoppers to hopefully get them in a purchasing mood.”

The island’s lone grocery/hardware store is ready for a holiday rush as well.

“After a few breakfast cocktails, folks do like to wander through impulse buying,” store owner Peachy Bottoms said. “We don’t give discounts, of course, but we have marked two items in the store at half price, and shoppers are encouraged to hunt for them. A hint: one of them’s in the canned food section.”

Island bars are prepping as well.

“We’ll be open early, serving bloody Marys and mimosas to anyone who needs them,” Sand Spit bartender Cori Anders said. “We also made a special Blacktip Friday cocktail. It’s basically Long Island iced tea made with Guiness. And you have to drink it outside. We only have the one restroom.”

Many island visitors are planning to get up early for the shopping.

“I can get a Blacktip Island t-shirt any time, but getting up early to buy it is a holiday tradition, really, even if prices aren’t reduced much,” Lacey Pesce said. “Getting out before it’s light and fighting with complete strangers really gets you in the holiday spirit. Nothing says, ‘Happy Holidays’ quite like an elbow to the ribs or a gouged eye.”

Island residents say they plan to enjoy the sales from a distance.

“I’m gonna make some coffee and popcorn, pull up a chair outside Sandy Bottoms’ and watch the mayhem,” Belinda Graysby said. “Nothing there I need. Or want. But it’ll be fun to watch tourists beat the crap out of each other. And see which locals’ll join in.”

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