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Blacktip Island Celebrates Year Of The Ox With Bull Shark Dives

lunar new year

Blacktip Island residents are celebrating the Year of the Ox with bull shark scuba outings this month. (photo courtesy of Albert Kok)

Blacktip Island scuba operators are celebrating the lunar new year—the Year of the Ox—for the next two weeks with daily scuba outings with bull sharks on the small Caribbean island’s reefs.

“We wanted to do something ox-related, but we don’t have any cows on the island,” Chamber of Commerce president Jay Valve said. “Then we hit on the idea of diving with bull sharks as the next-best thing. They’re something we definitely have. We’re doing two, three shark outings a day, and no one’s been bit, so we’re hoping this brings good luck in the coming year. People are loving it.

“The trick is getting the sharks to the right dive site at the right time. We’ve had to condition them to some extent,” Valve said. “It’s illegal to chum, so we have swimmers thrash around on the surface. Brings the sharks right in. Small children work best. And we haven’t lost too many. So far. Kids, not sharks.”

Organizers said the celebrations draw on lunar new year traditions worldwide.

“It’s not just a shark dive,” Val Schrader said. “It’s a celebration before and after, too. We serve jiaozi dumplings and spring rolls on the boats going to and from the sites, and underwater we have the divers get in a big dragon suit and weave around the reef.

“We can’t do fireworks, but underwater we have everyone wave their dive lights around like crazy,” Schrader said. “The ox theme’s worked well. Last year was the Year of the Rat, and, boy, did that ever go sideways.”

Scuba retailers emphasized other lunar new year customs.

“We encourage everyone to follow the ‘out with the old, in with the new’ tradition,” Bamboo You owner Piers ‘Doc’ Planck said. “At B.Y., we have a complete line of renewable bamboo scuba gear and accessories. It’s the perfect time to upgrade your gear for 2021. And with the celebration going the full 15 days, there’s plenty of time to shop. There’s no reason to invite bad luck by diving with last year’s gear.”

Island officials, meanwhile, were more focused on public safety.

“Folks see a need to swim with sharks, that’s their business, but on land, anyone setting off firecrackers, or lighting bonfires of any kind, will be summarily arrested,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Anything that booms, bangs or flies through the air is illegal, and fires have been banned. The island’s dry as a tinderbox right now and a stray spark could set the whole place off. You want to get shark bit, knock yourself out, but don’t burn the island down with your silliness.”

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Shark Diver Specialty Lets Blacktip Island Guests Be Sharks


An Eagle Ray Divers Shark Diver student tries out the scuba resort’s new, life-like shark suit Thursday at Blacktip Island’s Confrontation Reef. (Photo courtesy of Albert Kok)

Blacktip Island’s Eagle Ray Divers announced Friday they will offer a new Shark Diving specialty course that will allow divers dressed as sharks to interact with feeding reef sharks.

After two pool sessions, Shark Divers will don a life-like neoprene shark costume and swim among frenzied blacktip sharks in open water.

“We’ve got to stay competitive with other scuba resorts on the island,” said Ger Latner, Eagle Ray Cove’s dive operations manager. “Sandy Bottoms and Club Scuba Doo are eating our lunch. This gives our divers something they can’t get anywhere else.

“A couple of our instructors, Marina DeLow and Alison Diesel, came up with the idea, and we let them run with it,” Latner said.

“With this course, you don’t just get to see a shark, you get to be a shark,” DeLow said. “The sideways dolphin kick’s the skill that takes the longest to learn. You have to swim on your side to make the shark’s tail go back-and-forth properly.”

“You’ve gotta certify on the mini rebreather, too,” Diesel said. “A shark leaking bubbles freaks out the real sharks and totally ruins the experience. But if you do three open water dives in the suit, you get a Shark Rebreather card, too.”

Other island resorts were critical of the course.

“Ger’s yahoos’re chumming the water, then dropping unprotected divers smack in the middle of the food chain,” Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort owner Sandy Bottoms said. “How smart is that? A real shark bites the fake shark, it’s game over. For the diver and Blacktip Island’s tourism product.”

Scuba divers, though, raved about the course.

“It really gives you a feel of what it’s like to be a shark,” Eagle Ray Divers guest Bill Fish said. “And the Junior Shark Diver certification lets the kids in on the fun, too.

“We even put little Scotty in the Shark Snorkeling class,” Fish said. “Now the whole family can come out on the boat instead of one or the other of us staying behind on shore with the little ones. And the other divers love the way Scotty’s surface thrashing attracts so many blacktips.”

Eagle Ray Divers staff stressed the course entails on more than simple recreation.

“We talk about the role sharks play in our reef ecosystem, shark behavior and shark body language,” DeLow said. “It’s so gratifying when one of our divers does the ‘friendly-approach’ fin waggle and a reef shark comes in for a snuggle.

“Of course, we had that one diver sneeze while gesture beta testing,” DeLow added. “We’re not sure what, exactly, he signaled, but it didn’t turn out well. For the diver or the shark.”

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