Category Archives: Scuba Diving

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

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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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Leadbellies Dive Club Angers Blacktip Island Dive Staffs

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A pair of weight-belt bandoliers worn by members of the Leadbellies Dive Club. The club’s questionable weighting practices have angered many Blacktip Island divemasters. (photo courtesy of Eagle Ray Divers/Eagle Ray Cove resort)

A social club for scuba divers who wear excessive amounts of lead weights angered Blacktip Island dive staffs this week when the club booked space on all the Caribbean island’s dive boats.

“It’s a show of force on our part,” Leadbelly Divers president Ida Sunck said. “Wherever you go, divemasters shame you for wearing too much lead. It’s embarrassing and degrading. So we banded together to push back.

“We put members on every boat on the island, so there’s no way one outfit can shuffle us off to another one,” Sunck said. “We’re the customers, and we’ll wear as much weight as we want. Period.”

To qualify for membership, divers must meet strict weighting requirements.

“The baseline, with no wetsuit, is at least 10% of your total body weight, Leadbelly Bob Dunker said. “After that, there’s a BMI-based sliding scale, with roughly one pound added for each millimeter of wetsuit thickness worn.

“With a five-mil suit, you’d better be wearing 30 pounds, minimum, or you’re out,” Dunker said. “We encourage members to use weight-integrated BCs, just to surprise the divemasters, but some folks use so much they have to strap on weight-belt bandoliers.”

Island dive professionals say their opposition is focused on safety.

“It’s crazy wearing that much weight, especially on a wall dive,” Eagle Ray Divers divemaster Gage Hoase said. “If you’re wearing 20-plus pounds of lead over the wall and your BC fails, you’re gone. The guy with 26 pounds? That’s not integrated weight. That’s ballast. Why not just use the boat’s anchor?

“With that much weight, they’re vertical in the water,” Hoase said. “They burn through air and stress the hell out of their hearts. And most of them aren’t in the best shape to begin with. We keep the oxygen kits set up and ready to go with this group.”

Other staff focused on environmental concerns.

“Overweighted like that, they’re dragging across the bottom,” Club Scuba Doo operations manager Finn Kiick said. “They kill coral every time they kick. We showed them the Marine Parks rules, but they don’t care.

“We tried to charge a dollar a day per every pound they used, too,” Kiick said. “But the owners scotched that one.”

The island’s resort owners have welcomed the Leadbellies.

“Sure they’re yahoos, but if we turn them away, they’ll just dive with Sandy Bottoms or Blacktip Haven,” said Eagle Ray Cove owner Rich Skerritt. “The dive staff just needs to suck it up.

“We lose a customer, we’ll never get him back,’ Skerritt said. “We lose a couple of staff cat-herding the guests, well, we can always get more dive hippies. I got a foot-high stack of resumes by my desk.”

Island guests, meanwhile, gave the club high praise.

“The kids love to watch their giant strides,” Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort guest Christie Cottonwick said. “The splashes are phenomenal! It’s like being at a belly-flop contest!”

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Maglev Sightseeing Sub Debuts On Blacktip Island Reefs

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Blacktip Island’s new maglev bullet sub made its underwater debut Thursday afternoon. The sightseeing submarine can circle the small Caribbean island in less than an hour. (photo courtesy of Sally Port/Tiperon University-Blacktip)

A new high-speed sightseeing submarine took its maiden tour around Blacktip Island Thursday morning to launch what backers hope is as an emerging tourism market.

The submarine circles the island on a magnetic levitation rail at a depth of 25 feet, carries up to 32 passengers and can complete the island’s 26-mile circumference in less than an hour.

“Lots of places have submarine rides, but Blacktip’s the only one with a bullet sub,” Eagle Ray Cove owner Rich Skerritt said. “All us resort owners ponied up, and the Tourism Department kicked in some cash, too, to get more guests to visit the island.

“Lots of people don’t dive. They just want a quick look at the reefs, then back to the bar,” Skerritt said. “Hell, half our divers cover two, three sites every dive anyway. And no one gets seasick on the sub. So far.”

Scientists say maglev technology makes the quick tours possible.

“The carriage does 37.3 miles per hour, top speed,” said Tiperon University-Blacktip engineering chairperson Sally Port. “The drag from the water keeps the velocity down, and that’s key. If it went 200 miles per hour underwater, all you’d see would be a blue blur.”

The submarine is not without its critics.

“They’ve turned a pristine reef into an amusement park,” Pelagic Society president Edwin Chub said. “And no environmental impact study was done. They just pounded a rail into the reef and let her rip.

“And ‘bullet sub’ is a fitting name. It goes so fast fish can’t get out of its way,” Chubb said. “Snapper and coral die for this every day. There’s ichor on Rich and Sandy’s hands.”

Business owners brushed aside the criticism.

“There’s been bullet trains in Japan and Korea for years, so why not have one underwater on Blacktip?” Sandy Bottoms’ Beach Resort owner Sandy Bottoms said. “We’re just keeping up with the times. Showing fish to people who wouldn’t otherwise see them, and without a long boat ride.

“Guests say it’s better than diving,” Bottoms said. “The sub slows down at good sites where there’s stuff to see, then zips past the boring junk,” Bottoms said. “We can cycle through 30-plus tourists an hour, then sell them seaweed-dyed Bullet Sub t-shirts when they get off. This is the future of ecotourism.”

Guests on the sub’s inaugural trip agreed.

“It was like being in a video game, zooming over the coral like that,” said Sandy Bottoms’ guest Paula Porgy. “We scared the crap out of a bunch of fish, and I think we bonked into a couple of divers, but what a ride!

“It was the trip of a lifetime! We saw everything!” Porgy said. “And we were back in the hot tub in time for pre-lunch margaritas. Who could ask for more?”

 

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Seahorse Racing Brings Controversy To Blacktip Island

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Two Blacktip potbellied seahorses (blacktipius potbellius) line up in the starting gate Thursday at Blacktip Island’s new seahorse racetrack off the island’s sheltered west coast. The facility has drawn the ire of local marine life activists. (photo courtesy of Joanne Merriam)

Blacktip Island tourism officials hope a new seahorse racing facility, opened off the island’s west coast Wednesday, will draw more scuba divers to the small Caribbean island.

“It’s an up and coming sport that’s really taking off,” developer George Graysby said. “In the past year seahorse racing’s become the number one underwater spectator sport, bigger even than being a spotter for lionfish culls.

“We built an industry-standard .018-furlong hippodrome, with a three-foot-long backstretch,” Graysby said. “The track’s groomed sand and turtle grass. Those little suckers move around it pretty damn quick, once you adjust your expectations.”

The facility drew fierce opposition from People for the Ethical Treatment of the Marine Environment.

“This is a cruel sport, run by cruel people,” PETME president Harry Pickett said. “They capture young sea horses and raise them in total confinement. They pump them full of growth hormones. They shock them to make them swim faster.

“And if one of them has a bad race, or breaks a tail, they euthanize it strait away,” Pickett added. “It’s animal cruelty at its basest. And for what? Entertainment?”

Racing enthusiasts brushed aside those concerns.

“Harry needs to climb down off is high horse, loosen up and have some fun,” local race fan Rocky Shore said. “I mean, they don’t call it the most exciting five to six minutes in underwater sports for no reason.”

Island officials worry the track may bring a surge in crime on the island.

“We’re alert for any on-track or off-track gambling,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Anyone bets on a race, odds are they’ll be caught. That goes for placing bets on who gets caught betting as well.

“We’ve also taken steps to keep mob influence off the island,” Marquette said. “Organized crime ruined the seahorse racing industry on Aruba last year.”

Surprisingly, the racecourse found unexpected allies among island naturalists.

“Nudibranchs are the jockeys, you see, and a mount finishing sans-jockey is disqualified,” said Pelagic Society member Piers Planck. “We’ve had quite the uptick in inquiries about seahorses and nudibranchs. If this derby racing gets people interested in marine conservation, we’re all for it.

“Some species do make better jockeys,” Planck said. “The sea goddess family – the chromodoris – are usually best. They have the strongest grip. But we also had a sargassum nudibrach – scyllaea pelagica – that you couldn’t dislodge with a stick. We tried. Quite vigorously. Though not for gambling purposes.”

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Rude Dive Staffs Prompt Blacktip Island Cotillion Class

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Alison Diesel and Gage Hoase practice their quadrille Thursday evening at the Blacktip Island Heritage House. Dancing is one of many social skills being taught to island dive staff in a new cotillion class aimed at boosting tourism on the island. (photo courtesy of Silar)

Faced with a growing number of complaints about rude dive staff, Blacktip Island community leaders and etiquette activists have joined forces to create a cotillion program aimed at the Caribbean island’s divemasters.

“We got loads of guest complaints from every resort on the island,” mayor Jack Cobia said. “It ranged from not saying ‘hello,’ to sarcastic remarks, to snatching food from guests’ hands. Dive ops fire the bad apples, but the replacements’re just as bad.

“When word hit travel review sites, we knew we had to do something drastic,” Cobia said. “It was killing our tourism product.”

The solution was to recruit the island’s gentry.

“Jack could have been describing wild animals,” long-time resident Helen Maples said. “He asked if I might teach the rascals manners, deportment, dancing and other social graces.

“I was delighted! I’ve wanted to institute a regimen like this for years,” Maples said. “The next evening I lined up a dozen hostile scuba hippies, and whacked them with a ruler if they didn’t stand up straight.”

Cobia is cautiously optimistic about the course.

“Honestly, it’s a pilot project,” he said. “But if it works, we may expand it to include all resort workers, then airfield staff, then anyone else in the tourism industry.

“If it doesn’t work, it’s still fun to watch,” Cobia said. “Helen tells them to imagine their granny’s standing next to them. Then, if they so much as look sideways, TWHACK! Bruce Lee’d be jealous of how fast that ruler moves.”

Predictably, many divemasters were critical of the class.

“That bloody ruler hurts,” said Eagle Ray Divers’ Lee Helm. “It’s not right, requiring us to go there and be physically abused. Mrs. Maples is a sadist, she is.”

Maples was unapologetic about her methods.

“It’s a time-honored tradition. Or should be,” she said. “The ruler reminds them to wear shoes, to speak in complete, non-obscene sentences and to pass the salt and pepper together when a tablemate requests, “Would you please pass the salt?”

Some dive staff, though, say they enjoy cotillion.

“Lee’s a whiner,” said Eagle Ray Divers’ Alison Diesel. “It’s so cool when Gage, umm, I mean Mister Hoase, comes up and says, ‘Miss Diesel, may I have this dance?’ and I say, ‘Certainly, Mister Hoase.’”

Attendee Finn Kiick, of Club Scuba Doo, sees other positives.

“It’s goofy, sure, but you learn proper, formal dancing,” he said. “Women dig that crap. You’ll see DMs out cutting a rug at the Sand Spit pretty much any night of the week now, practicing.

“It’s value-added on the boats, too,” Kiick added. “Run out of stories to tell during a surface interval? Now you can entertain the guests with a waltz. Or a quadrille.”

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