Category Archives: Scuba Diving

Fish On Strike At Blacktip Island Dive Sites

fish on strike

Blacktip Island scuba divers are blaming the island’s French angelfish for inciting a swim-off strike involving all the fish at all the Caribbean island’s dive sites. (photo courtesy of Barry Peters)

Scuba divers on Blacktip Island reefs Wednesday and Thursday were surprised to find the dive sites empty of reef fish, in what experts are calling a cross-species protest.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner. “As of yesterday morning it was hard to find any fish at all, and the ones you did see would taunt you, then dart away.

“It started with the French angelfish turning tail on photographers,” Latner said. “Then all the other fish followed suit. Guests thought it was funny at first, but now everyone’s pissed off. Every photo from today has been of bare coral or a fish’s butt. Even the sea slugs are hiding under the coral heads.”

Local marine biologists say the phenomenon is likely a form of piscine protest.

“Based on what data we have, our working theory is the fish are consciously spurning divers due to an environmental stressor,” said Tiperon University-Blacktip biology professor Ernesto Mojarra. “It happens a lot. You just don’t hear about it.

“Given the hostility displayed toward photographers, most likely the fish are tired of underwater strobes flashing in their faces all day,” Mojarra said. “They’ve made no demands yet. That we know of. They can be difficult to read, but we have our best biologists on site to mediate.”

Local resort owners, though, are not waiting patiently.

“I don’t care what they’re hacked off about, this is killing my business,” Sandy Bottoms’ Beach Resort owner Sandy Bottoms said. “It figures it’s the French angelfish behind it. Those bastards are always starting trouble.

“They demanded vacation time last year,” Bottoms said. “Got the idea from the grouper, who take off for a week on the spawning grounds every winter. Now all the other fish want entitlements. We need to cut them loose and bring in new fish who’ll be grateful to have a reef like this. You think the lionfish won’t jump at the chance?”

Experts, however, warned such action could escalate into violence.

“This morning a multi-species school circled Hammerhead Reef for hours,” Mojarra said. “A bunch of barracuda watched, but didn’t join in. If the barras, or the sharks, get involved, things could get ugly. Fast.

“We need to rachet things down a notch,” Mojarra said. “Banning cameras and strobes from the dive sites would be a good start. It’s drastic, but that good-faith gesture could be the thing that resolves this.”

While most guests were angered by the lack of marine life, some were unexpectedly supportive.

“I came here to look at the fish, sure, but it’s their right to not hang with divers,” said Blacktip Haven guest Maxie Fondé. “They’re wild animals, after all.

“Big picture, I support what they’re doing,” Fondé said. “I mean, if I don’t stand up for their rights, who, or what, will stand up for mine when the time comes?”

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Blacktip Thespians To Perform Underwater ‘Day Of The Staghorn’

day of the staghorn

Detail of Lee Helm’s Staghorn King costume for the Blacktip Island Community Players’ underwater staging of the post-apocalyptic drama ‘The Day of the Staghorn.’ (photo courtesy of Onislandtimes)

The Blacktip Island Community Players will perform the post-apocalyptic underwater drama, The Day of the Staghorn, off the Sand Spit Bar Saturday and Sunday to draw attention to the plight of the Caribbean island’s ailing coral reefs.

The play, written by Blacktip resident Payne Hanover, is based loosely on The Day of the Triffids, the 1951 novel and 1962 motion picture about intelligent, animate plants that take over the Earth.

“In this, it’s the coral that’s a threat to mankind, so it’s different,” Hanover said. “Dump runoff gives one coral species the ability to think and move. Then the coral attacks the people that threatened it.

“The story’s set underwater, after rising seas cover the island,” Hanover said. “Humans have to build an undersea haven, then protect it from the marauding coral. It’s actually turned out quite well, all things considered.”

The play will be performed underwater to highlight the island’s coral damage.

“It started with wondering what would happen if the reefs could fight back,” said director Doris Blenny. “For the audience to see how much damage there is to the actual coral, it really drives that point home.

“As for the staghorn suits, Elena Havens and the costumers put in long hours making them as realistic as possible, right down to the stinging cells,” Blenny said. “And we did vote down repeated suggestions to make it a musical. It was a close thing”

The scuba-certified cast includes:

  • Hugh Calloway as Bill Mason
  • Marina DeLow as Josella Playton
  • Finn Kiick as Wilfred Coker
  • Gauge Hoase as Michael Beadly
  • Jessie Catahoula as Miss Durant
  • Lee Helm as the Staghorn King

Though island environmentalists praised the play, resort owners are concerned about its impact on future business.

“All this touchy-feely talk about coral is fine,” Club Scuba Doo owner Ham Pilchard said. “But showing a damaged reef is going to scare off divers. The Caymans are gonna eat our lunch over this. And casting divers as the bad guys? There’s gonna be some ugly blowback on that.”

Producers, however, insist the play will do more good than harm.

“We expect it to draw additional divers to Blacktip rather than scare them away,” Blenny said. “We’re staging multiple showings, as the actors’ no-decompression limits allow, so as many people can see it as possible.

“The only negative so far has been Lee Helm developing an unnatural attachment to his Staghorn King costume,” Blenny said. “He kept sneaking around the island bars stinging people. It took three of us to hold him down and peel the suit off of him.”

All proceeds from the production will go to the Nature Conservancy’s Coral Reef Preservation Fund, Hanover said.

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Underwater Rock Climbing Comes To Blacktip Island

underwater rock climbing

Underwater rock climbers scout Slubberdudgeon Wall on Blacktip Island’s southeast coast prior to a climb Thursday afternoon. (photo courtesy of Derek Keats)

Scuba divers on Blacktip Island can now do more than look at fish after Club Scuba Doo resort launched an underwater rock climbing program this week.

“We’ve got to attract a younger, hipper crowd,” Scuba Doo dive manager Finn Kiick said. “We’re revitalizing the sport. Underwater climbing’ll make scuba an adventure again.

“With that wall that dropping thousands of feet straight down, Blacktip’s a natural for deep-water climbing,” Kiick said. “It’s the best of both worlds. You’re on scuba, but you get the adrenalin rush of free-climbing. And with the zero-gravity feel, it’s like rock climbing on the moon.”

Other dive operators were critical of the plan.

“We spend all day telling guests not to touch coral, explaining how the slightest touch can kill a thousand-year-old coral head,” Eagle Ray Divers manager Ger Latner said. “Now we’ve got these knuckleheads encouraging divers to crawl all over it.

“They’re also gonna get divers hurt, too,” Latner said. “People looking for their next hand hold instead of their gauges? That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Club Scuba Doo management defended the program.

“We do the climbing on the southeast wall where all the coral’s dead anyway,” resort owner Ham Pilchard said. “And we don’t allow anchors or hooks of any kind. This is about as eco-friendly as you can get.

“Long-term, this is good for the reefs,” Pilchard said. “It gets young people on the reef and excited about the underwater world. We’re creating the next generation of marine ecologists here.”

Kiick stressed the sport’s safety.

“There’s been zero cases of climbers blowing no-deco limits or breathing their tank dry,” he said. “The injuries so far have been from fire coral. And scorpion fish.

“They’re hard to see, ‘til you grab them,” Kiick said. “We give our climbers Kevlar gloves and booties now, for their own protection.”

Underwater climbers had high praise for the sport.

“It’s great to be able to climb without anyone belaying,” Club Scuba Doo repeat guest Leah Shore said. “Plus, it’s fun for the whole family. We can dive with the kids one day and climb with them the next.

“For longer climbs, or deeper climbs, you can use doubles if you want,” Shore said. “There’s some phenomenal 5.12 overhangs down around 180, if you’re into techie climbing. We don’t let the kiddos do that, though.”

Resort scuba instructors will offer a range of underwater climbing specialty courses.

“You do four climbs rated 5.4 – 5.6, you get your basic Underwater Rock Climber card,” Kiick said. “For the more hardcore, we’ll be offering Trimix Climbing, Heliox Climbing and Extended Range Technical Climbing courses.”

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Resort Tells Blacktip Guests To “Fling Your Phones”

phone throwing

Mobile phones of all shapes and sizes will go flying Sunday afternoon in Eagle Ray Cove’s ‘Fling Your Phone’ contest, aimed at getting resort guests to disconnect from work while on vacation. (photo courtesy of Marina DeLow)

In an effort to help newly-arrived guests embrace their vacations, a Blacktip Island resort will launch a new, weekly ‘Fling Your Phone’ cellular telephone throwing contest Sunday afternoon at Diddley’s Landing public pier.

“People fly in here Saturdays so uptight they can’t even enjoy their free drink at the bar,” Eagle Ray Cove owner Rich Skerritt said. “Every one swears they’ll turn their phone off, and none of them ever do.

“Then last week a woman on the dock snatched the phone out of her husband’s hand and threw it as far as she could,” Skerritt said. “It was beautiful. With that arm, if she didn’t play third base, she should’ve.”

Resort staff hit on the idea of getting as many guests as possible to get rid of their phones.

“We got a lot of lukewarm smiles until we pitched it as a competition,” said divemaster and contest organizer Marina DeLow. “Then guests were fighting to see who would throw first. The ‘I Had A Fling on Blacktip Island’ t-shirt prizes help, too.

“We have separate categories for phones, tablets and laptops, and we’re thinking of adding a flip-phone category, too, for our older guests,” DeLow said. “Throwing styles are different for each. Phones you can throw overhand, but tablets fly better with a Frisbee toss. For laptops, a spinning, discus-style throw seems to work best.”

Many resort guests are grateful for Sunday’s Fling.

“I’ve been practicing with phone-sized rocks all day,” Eagle Ray Cove guest Theresa Troute said. “I know I can’t trust myself to not call work. My husband’s just as bad.

“We popped out our SIMs as soon as we got here, so we won’t lose our data,” Troute said. “Come Sunday, our phones are going flying. Thanks to the Fling, we’ll finally have a proper vacation”

Local scuba instructors will act as judges and supervise reef cleanup after the event.

“We put down ski rope transect lines across the reef so we can accurately measure where each device lands,” Eagle Ray Divers ops manager Ger Latner said. “The official distance is where the phone settles on the bottom, not where it hits the water.

“More importantly, we’ll use the grid to collect all the phones afterwards so no toxic chemicals or heavy metals will leach out onto the reef,” Latner said. “We’ve combined the cleanup with a search and recovery specialty course for our guests. As soon as the Fling’s finished, we’ll put the students in the water and have them swim search patterns until they find all the devices. For a reduced fee, of course.”

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Fire Coral Festival Brings The Burn To Blacktip Island

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A stand of encrusting fire coral waits in the shallows of Blacktip Island’s Fire Coral Reef. Saturday the island will celebrate the benefits of fire coral in protecting the Caribbean island’s reefs. (photo courtesy of Nick Hobgood)

Blacktip’s annual Fire Coral Festival returns to the island Saturday at multiple venues and dive sites to celebrate the importance of the stinging coral in protecting the island’s fragile reefs. The festival, in its 17th year, is sponsored by the Tiperon Marine Parks department.

“It started years ago after overweighted scuba divers came back all welted up, howling about our reefs being eat-up with the fire coral,” Marine Parks spokesperson Val Schrader. “We put a positive spin on that. If you can’t beat it, celebrate it, if you will.

“Our aim is to remind divers that the slightest touch can harm coral,” Schrader said. “Fire coral lets divers experience how much coral can hurt them. We’ve found pain is a great tutor.”

The festival features snorkeling tours of the island’s most fire coral-filled reefs, live music by island bands, a beach bonfire and food stalls serving curry and coral-themed drinks.

“The highlight’s the ½-K Fun Run,” festival organizer Jay Valve said. “Runners in Speedos and flip-flops sprint past Eagle Ray Cove chased by other runners grabbing at them with fire coral-coated gloves. It’s amazing how fast folks can go when they’re about to get stung. There’s some hefty guests here, but they’d give Usain Bolt a run for his money.

“Of course, medical staff’ll be on hand to deal with any cases of anaphylactic shock,” Valve said. “Some people also wanted to throw jellyfish at the runners, but we nixed that. This is a fire coral-only event. No other stinging life forms are allowed. That’s another festival. In the fall.”

The festival has also fostered a rare détente between tourism and environmental groups.

“Normally we’d be against anyone touching coral, but this is for a great cause,” said Benthic Society president Harry Pickett. “Fire coral’s the reef’s great defense, the way the ocean strikes back at people who don’t respect it. We call fire coral ‘reef karma.’”

During the festival, all Blacktip Island dive operations have banned the use of wetsuits.

“It’s a reality check for divers who don’t realize, or care, how crap their buoyancy is,” said Eagle Ray Divers ops manager Ger Latner. “It’s part of the festivities. Each dive boat votes for the guest with the worst buoyancy control, then we make all those folks scuba naked across Fire Coral Reef.

“Yeah, it’s painful. And humiliating. But it makes a point,” Latner said. “And the divers gets free drinks the rest of the night. And a t-shirt. And free medical care, if needed.”

All proceeds from the festival go toward replacement mooring balls and lines for the island’s dive sites.

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Blacktip Island Hosts Conch Herding Competition

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Eagle Ray Sound, on Blacktip Island’s west coast, is the site of this weekend’s conch herding trials. Herders from across the Caribbean will compete in the semi-annual event. (photo courtesy of Clete Horn)

Blacktip Island will welcome conch herders from around the Caribbean Saturday for the 47th Semi-Annual Caribbean Basin Conch-Off in the island’s Eagle Ray Sound.

“Conch herding’s an island tradition, and we’re damn proud to be selected to host this year’s Conch-Off,” Blacktip Island Traditional Conch Herders president Clete Horn said. “It’s a competitive sport, like sheep herding, except underwater. And with conchs instead of sheep and grouper instead of herd dogs.

“The handler on the surface directs a pair of trained Nassau grouper to herd a half dozen conch across the sand, around coral and whatnot, then into a catch basket,” Horn said. “And it’s strictly catch-and-release. No conchs are injured, despite what some say.”

The herding trials are conducted in heats, with two conchers facing off on opposite sides of the lagoon, directing their groupers with hand motions and finger pops. The first to get six conchs into a basket and to the surface moves on to the next round.

Blacktip Island will be represented by local favorite Antonio Fletcher. Competitors, from as far away as Guiana and Cuba, include regional sensations Shelly Hard, Jorge Pompano and reigning champion Caracol Gigante.

“The trick’s to think like a conch, get inside its brain,” Fletcher said. “Me having The Sight helps with that. Got to have the right grouper, too. Raised mine by hand from little-bitty fry.

“Folks tried herding with stingrays a while back, thinking they’re smarter, easier to train,” Fletcher said. “But the rays get distracted too easy, you know. Like they all got ADHD or something. No, groupers are best, and my Nassaus are best of the lot.”

Animal rights groups are campaigning against the competition.

“One person grabbing one conch for personal use is reasonable,” said Conch Appreciation Committee president Harry Pickett. “Not necessary, but justifiable.

“Chasing bunches of conchs across the sand, then jerking them to the surface for sport, well, it’s not good for the conchs. It can give them strokes,” Pickett said. “That leaves us with lots of traumatized conchs. The last thing this island needs is neurotic snails.”

Conchers were quick to defend their sport.

“It’s Blacktip. Short-term memory’s a non-issue here,” Horn said. “I guarantee they’ve forgotten about it by the time they hit the bottom again. Hell, most of the spectators will have, too.”

The competition is a popular spectator sport among locals and tourists alike.

“Families with kids like to watch from the surface,” Horn said. “But we also have underwater videographers streaming the action to the Sand Spit bar so adults can watch with a cold drink in the air conditioning.”

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Reef Rage Sparks Blacktip Island’s New Underwater Police

reef rage

Blacktip Island’s tranquil beauty has been marred by recent violence on the Caribbean island’s dive sites. The incidents prompted the creation of a special underwater police unit. (photo courtesy of Ger Latner/Eagle Ray Divers)

A rash of underwater incidents described as ‘reef rage’ has prompted Blacktip Island officials to create an underwater volunteer police unit to safeguard the Caribbean island’s divers.

“The high stakes world of scuba tourism isn’t for the faint of heart,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “There’s more dive boats out there, carrying more divers, each competing for the same amount of space on the reef. You pay a bunch of money to dive here, you want to see everything. Trouble is, so does everyone else.

“We’ve had everything from divers bumping other divers out of the way to pulling dive knives on each other,” Latner said. “The final straw was the guy who surfaced with a cut regulator hose. The bubbles were beautiful from the surface, but somebody could’ve been hurt.”

The island’s police constable formed the ad hoc Special Underwater Police Auxiliary to deal with the attacks.

“There’s only one of me, and I barely know how to swim,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “I can put on a snorkel vest and watch from the surface, but I can’t stop anything from happening, and I can’t be at every site all day.

“I ran local divers through a quick Special Constable course, then turned them loose,” Marquette said. “We stress de-escalating confrontations and non-violent intervention. The volunteers do carry underwater Tasers, though. Just in case.”

S.U.P.A. officers say their experience often lets them stop trouble before it starts.

“Most confrontations start with someone inadvertently getting kicked, or not letting other divers see an interesting sea creature,” said S.U.P.A. member Frank Maples. “Photographers are especially bad. If we can nudge them along, we’ve nipped the problem in the bud.”

One overzealous scuba diver has been arrested so far.

“The jerk with the big-ass camera started it,” Blacktip Haven guest Maxie Fondé said. “Planted that sucker in front of an eel hole and camped there 10, 15 minutes. Wouldn’t let me or my husband see.

“He ignored a polite tap on the shoulder, then flipped my off when I pulled him away,” Fondé said. “Shooting my spear into the sand next to his head sure got him to move, though. Then he had the audacity to file charges.”

Other dive guests applauded the new special constables.

“It’s nice not having to confront bad divers anymore,” said Club Scuba Doo guest Olive Beaugregory. “If someone’s being an ass, I just motion to the reef patrol and they take care of things. Just this morning, when a man was lying on the reef, the constable squeezed his inflator vale and WHOOSH! sent him to the surface. Problem solved!”

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