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.”