Tag Archives: Caribbean festivals

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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Music, Biology Highlight Blacktip Island’s Sea Cucumber Festival

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A Blacktip Islander holds up a donkey dung sea cucumber during the annual spring spawning aggregation in the Blacktip Island shallows Thursday. The Caribbean island’s Sea Cucumber Festival commemorates the role the echinoderms played in Blacktip Island’s history. (photo courtesy of James St. John)

The annual sea cucumber migration heralds Blacktip Island’s spring Sea Cucumber Festival at the Heritage House this weekend. The event celebrates the marine echinoderms’ vital role in the small Caribbean island’s history.

“Like clockwork, they come in from the deep reefs to breed in the shallow lagoon the first week in May,” Tiperon University-Blacktip biology professor Ernesto Mojarra said. “It’s hard to notice at first, but before you know it, the shallows are jam-packed with them.

“It’s like a field of slowly-undulating dung,” Mojarra said. “Beautiful, really. They cluster in the mangrove roots to spawn. And always return to the place they were hatched. We think. They all kind of look alike.”

The cucumbers were key to early settlers’ survival.

“The original islanders would never have survived without sea cucumbers,” island historian Smithson Altschul said. “Back in the day, sea cucumbers were a major food source during lean times.

“When they migrated to shallow enough water, settlers’d scoop them up, sun-dry them and store them to eat later,” Altschul said. “The festival commemorates that with sea cucumber salad, stew, kebabs and jerky. Dermott Bottoms even cooks up sea cucumber rum in his bathtub.”

The migration also draws international sea cucumber experts.

“This is the only place in the world with the unique combination of deep reefs, accessible cuts and shallow mangrove coasts that allows us to document the entire migration start to finish,” visiting biologist Marlin Bleu said. “Any place else, you’re never sure if the cucumber you were tracking on the reef is the same one you’re studying in the shallows.

“Other islands, we tried radio tracking, but transponders don’t work more than a few hours, what with the slime and all,” Bleu said. “Here, the only issue is the locals eat the cucumbers faster than we can study them. There’s conservation laws, but they go by the wayside during the big migration.”

Many locals bristled at the criticism.

“Of course we eat them,” long-time resident Clete Horn said. “What else are you supposed to do? It’s our heritage. Daddy and Granddaddy went cuking, you can bet I will, too.

“It’s not like there’s a shortage of cukes. Just look at them,” Horn said. “The geeks want to study them, there’s plenty for everyone. Just stay out of my way.’

In addition to food and drink, the festival will also feature live music by local bands The Stinging Hydroids, Scratcher Wrasse and the Slippery Dicks and local favorite the Social Morays.

“It’s Blacktip. We turn pretty much anything into a party,” Altschul said. “Whatever it takes to have sanctioned public drunkenness, really.”

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