Tag Archives: reef conservation

Facial Recognition System Will Protect Blacktip Island Reefs


Blacktip Island marine parks authorities have installed facial-recognition cameras like this one on the Caribbean island’s dive sites in an effort to reduce scuba diver-caused coral damage. (photo courtesy of Nick Hobgood)

Concerned with increasing diver damage to Blacktip Island reefs, authorities have installed facial-recognition cameras, disguised as coral heads, throughout the island’s dive sites to identify the most egregious offenders.

“The coral on some of our most popular dive sites is wiped out from so many divers with crap buoyancy,” marine parks spokesperson Val Schrader said. “We’ve tried being nice. We’ve tried educating people. Now we’re getting ugly.

“There’s not enough dive staff, or marine park staff, to patrol the reefs, so we’ve installed hidden cameras,” Schrader said. “Whenever someone crashes into coral, we’ll be able to track them down and take appropriate action.”

Authorities say punishment for damaging coral will be stiffened as well.

“In addition to the fines already in place, we’ll be posting violators’ names and faces on our website,” Department of Tourism head Rocky Shore said. “We’re going for an all-out, island-wide full-court press. Naming and shaming’s an integral part of that.

“Additionally, we can move the camera housings from site to site,” Shore said. “Dive staff will be able to spot them, but tourists down for the week will never know. They’ll have to assume they’re under surveillance the entire time they’re under water.”

Many scuba diving visitors raised concerns about the program.

“This is a serious invasion of privacy,” Bill Fisch said. “They say it’s to protect the coral, but who gets all that data they’re collecting on every diver, and who are they selling it to later?

“Plus, how can divers relax and unwind is they know they’re being spied on?” Fisch said. “I’m gonna get fined and insulted time my fin brushes a sea plume?”

Others supported the plan.

“If it protects the coral, I’m all for it,” longtime island visitor Suzy Souccup said. “Plus, it’s fun to watch divers striking poses underwater, as if there’s a camera in every coral head. The guy who mooned the brain coral, though, I could have done without that.”

Park officials were quick to defend the program.

“Divers waive some of their privacy rights when they enter the marine park,” Schrader said. “That’s stated quite clearly on every dive operation’s waiver. And we’re only concerned with major reef crashers.

“You put out a fingertip to keep surge from slamming you into coral, no worries,” Schrader said. “We’re going after the yahoos who crawl across the reef, drag their gauges over it, kick the crap out of sea fans or stand on coral. We expect this to be a major revenue enhancer.”

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Divers Scour Blacktip Island Reefs To Save Lead Weights


Some of the lead scuba diving weights retrieved Friday from Blacktip Island’s Pinnacle Reef by volunteer cleanup divers. (photo courtesy of Finn Kiick)

Blacktip Island environmentalists Friday launched a schedule for weekly volunteer reef cleanups aimed at ridding the Caribbean island’s dive sites of lead scuba weights.

“December starts high season for dropped weights,” cleanup organizer Ham Pilchard said. “Resort divers tend to be heavy anyway, and when the water temps dip, they squeeze into their thick wetsuits and grab a ton of weights.

“There’s lead dropping all over the reef, crashing coral and leeching poison into everything down there,” Pilchard said. “Integrated weight pockets? Try ‘weight dispensing units.’ We get divers whacked by falling lead at least once a week.”

The initiative given a boost by island dive operations complaining about a shortage of weights for their guests.

“Coral gets damaged, sure, but it got to the point where we didn’t have enough lead to get all our divers underwater,” said Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner. “People can’t dive, we have to refund their money.

“The Marine Parks folks couldn’t keep up with all those sunken weights,” Latner said. “Then Ham had the idea of making a game of it and things really took off.”

Blacktip Island dive operations let weight collectors dive free on their dive boats.

“We give ‘em a mesh sack and a lift bag and let ‘em go to town,” Club Scuba Doo dive chief Finn Kiick said. “We can count it as a Search and Recovery dive for an Advanced or specialty card, too. Plus, we pay a 10-cent-per-pound bounty.

“The hot dive sites are the most target rich,” Kiick said. “You find other stuff, too. Cameras. Knives. Wedding rings. Gold teeth. Glass eyes. We return what we can to the owners. What they can’t return gets sold at resort gift shops. Or online.”

The cleanups’ profit motive has drawn sharp criticism from some.

“Put all the lipstick on it you want, these people are scavengers,” Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort guest Buddy Brunnez said. “They’re selling stuff that isn’t theirs after, at best, a half-assed search for the owners. How hard do you really think they’re looking for who lost a gold ring?”

Industry professionals were quick to defend the sales.

“Ten cents a pound doesn’t really turn many heads,” Latner said. “But add the incentive of being able to make some real money through an online auction? Our boats are full, and so are our weight bins. Is that legal? That’s the divers’ concern – we get our weights back.

“We have one of our instructors working up a Weight Retrieval Diver distinctive specialty course, too,” Latner said. “Four dives, and bring back at least 50 pounds of lead, and the card’s yours. People are lining up to take it.”

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Blacktip Island Resort Launches Virtual Reality Scuba Diving

virtual reality

A virtual hawksbill turtle swims across the virtual Blacktip Island hardpan during an Eagle Ray Divers virtual reality scuba dive on Thursday. (Photo courtesy Leah Shore)


Blacktip Island’s Eagle Ray Cove resort this week unveiled a new virtual reality scuba program for guests who are unable to swim or are afraid of the water.

“We stick them in a V.R. suit, strap them in a harness and hang them in the conference room on bungee cords,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “They can kick and flail and bounce around just like our regular divers.

“We pipe in sounds of regulators, bubbles, pistol shrimp and boat propellers to add to the realism,” Latner said. “We have a divemaster to tell bad jokes between dives, too, and give virtual fire coral and jellyfish stings when needed.”

Local underwater videographers have been hired to provide a variety of reef scenes.

“What each diver sees totally depends on what they do while they’re hanging,” said local cameraperson Leah Shore. “We’re shooting non-stop so there’s as many options as possible.

“Anything you’d run into on a real dive, you get in the V.R. room,” Shore said. “A current could kick up, a shark could chase you, the viz could go to hell, you name it. A guest freaked yesterday when she hit a downwelling and dropped 50 feet down the wall.”

Critics object to the program’s pricing as well as its secondary use as punishment for scuba divers who damage the reef with poor diving practices.

“They’re hanging folks on rubber bands and charging them the same as if they were on a boat,” dive tour organizer Kelly Cottonwick said. “That’s not right. Neither is making divers dangle in a cubicle if they bump the coral a few times.”

Eagle Ray Divers defended both practices.

“Those V.R. suits aren’t cheap,” Latner said. “And we have staffing costs to cover. Bottom line, we’re not forcing anyone to do anything. Except coral-crashing yahoos.

“Reef conservation’s a bonus,” Latner said. “Blacktip Island’s reefs are so healthy because we protect them. Reef trashers get two warnings, then they hang in the conference room and think about what they’ve done. It’s in the waiver they sign.

“If they can demonstrate improved buoyancy, they’re welcome back on the dive boat,” Latner said. “We’ve been selling buoyancy classes like crazy this week.”

Guests, meanwhile, rave about the experience’s authenticity.

“There was a ton of virtual surge today,” virtual diver Buddy Brunnez said. “The divemaster had to bring buckets for a couple of us to barf in. And a guy yesterday was complaining about decompression sickness.”

Latner said the resort will soon offer virtual reality specialty courses in night diving, navigation and nitrox.

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Red Herrings Invade Blacktip Island Reefs

Non-native red herrings have overwhelmed Blacktip Island in recent months, confounding scuba divers and angering residents.

Non-native red herrings have overwhelmed Blacktip Island in recent months, confounding scuba divers and angering residents.

Blacktip Island residents are scrambling to combat invasive red herrings causing dangerous levels of confusion on the Caribbean island’s reefs.

“No one’s sure how they got here,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said Thursday. “Where’s stuff like this ever come from? Our guess, they got dragged here, either unintentionally in a boat’s bilge, or on purpose by some yahoo.

“Either way, they’ve got to go,” Latner said. “They’re gobbling up our native species and wearing out our divemasters.”

Other scuba professionals are concerned about the threat the herrings pose to scuba diving guests.

“They’re beautiful and all, but they get our divers into some pretty gnarly jams,” Club Scuba Doo dive manager Finn Kiick said. “They shimmy and flash and you chase after them. Then they head for deeper water. We got guests going into deco left and right.

“There’s way more divers getting lost, too,” Kiick said. “They zone out following some bogus fish across the reef, and bang-o, next thing they know they’re three dive sites over. And out of air.”

After attempts to cull the herrings proved futile, government officials have shifted tactics to control their damage.

“For whatever reason, red herrings seem to thrive on this little island,” Marine Parks spokesperson Basil Kipper said. “We tried leading them into nets, but they wouldn’t follow, and quick as we would spear one, two more would take its place.

“Currently we’re urging divers to simply ignore them and hope they go away,” Kipper said. “Really, they’re only dangerous if one pays attention to them. The herrings, not the divers.”

Island leaders are demanding more proactive measures.

“These things are destroying our tourism product,” Eagle Ray Cove resort owner Rich Skerritt said. “All this talk about these damn fish’s got folks sidetracked from the important issues facing Blacktip. Just spear ‘em all, pronto, and restore diver confidence so we can refocus on extending our airstrip and expanding our resorts.”

Other residents are taking a more inclusive approach to the pests.

“We serve up red herrings at just about every meal,” said Blacktip Haven resort owner Elena Havens. “Like it or not, they’re part of our island’s ecosystem. We tell our guests ‘accept them, embrace them, then eat them.’

“We’re all red herrings at heart, when you think about it,” Havens said.

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