A battle lost but a war to wage

| 05/05/2008

By Wendy Ledger (Monday, 5 May 2008)

Against the backdrop of a surge of environmental and conservational
interest across the Cayman Islands, the low-key, but persistent,
campaign against the two captive dolphin facilities currently in
development in West Bay soldiers on. With more than 1,700 people
joining the Chamber of Commerce’s Earth Day clean up last month and a
significant body of support for George Town’s last piece of remaining
Iron wood Forest, the Keep it Wild and Keep Dolphins Free campaign is
still seeking more hands-on support and has by no means given up the
fight.

There is no doubt that the campaign failed to prevent the facilities
from going ahead, something that activists say was already a fait
accompli before they really got going, but Billy Adam continues to
spearhead an awareness and education programme about what he calls the
deception and dishonesty associated with the dolphin trade, and other
campaigners still believe there is hope, that in the end, the war
maybe won through the purse.

One of Cayman’s original activists said the campaign direction is now
focused towards persuading people simply not to visit the facilities.
She said that the hope was local people and especially schools 
would not patronise the parks and that in time the cruise ships could
be convinced to stop selling ‘swim with dolphin’ excursions to their
passengers, who are expected to be the main patrons of the two parks
due to open in Cayman in the next few months.

Adam says that one cruise liner at least, Radisson Seven Seas, has
already stated it won’t sell the dolphin tours and that a number of
countries around the Caribbean are turning against the idea in
principle. Imports of dolphins are also being halted more frequently,
most recently in the Dominican Republic, where the particular dolphin
importation documents proved to be false.

“These were the same papers, however, that the Cayman Islands’
government was willing to accept,” said Adam, who added that the
captive dolphin business was not just cruel and unpleasant but one
associated with dishonesty.  He said that he would continue to
educate people about the industry and why we should not entertain
these facilities in Cayman. “It’s easy to find information
demonstrating how unpleasant this business is. The whole industry is
based on deception and we will keep on bringing forward the evidence
about it.”

Cayman’s two facilities, which are due to open in the summer, are both
based in West Bay. Dolphin Discovery Cayman Ltd is on a site leased
form Boatswain Beach and the other, Dolphin Cove Cayman, is along the
coast from Morgan’s Harbour. The facilities were granted government
approval before the current administration took office. However, in
spite of significant opposition within the community, the People’s
Progressive Movement (PPM) government did not halt the earmarked
projects but instigated a moratorium in 2006 to prevent any further
facilities being developed before a more comprehensive law to govern
such facilities was established – one that has not yet emerged.

Some 2,000 people signed a petition against the dolphinariums and the
government is, according to Adam, in receipt of more than 5,000
letters from Caymanains and others from around the world raising the
numerous objections to such facilities and the reasons why. The vast
majority of members, some 75% of the Cayman Islands Tourism
Association, as well as leading members of the dive community, were
also against the development of the dolphin parks.

Moreover, the objections go beyond the problems of cruelty.
Humanitarian concerns, reduced life expectancy of the dolphins, 
environmental degradation to our delicate marine eco-systems, in
particular the reefs from dolphin excrement, the overall potential PR
disaster such facilities present for the country as a whole are all
important considerations weighed against who benefits from such a
project. Campaigners say the only people benefitting from the parks
are those developing them.

CNS contacted  the Minister of Tourism and Environment, Charles
Clifford, the Director of Planning Kenneth Ebanks, both of the
developers and owners of the proposed facilities, Dales Crighton and
Kent Eldemire respectively,  and the Turtle Farm asking them
among other things to explain the benefits of the facilities to the
Cayman Islands in general, and to answer the numerous accusations
about cruelty, environmental degradation and the considerations given
to the two projects from a political and development point of view.
However, CNS received only one response from a representative of the
Eldemire family stating they did not wish to comment.

Back in 2007, Gene Thompson who is partnering with Dale Crighton on
the Dolphin Discovery project, said that, while everyone was not happy
with the planned development, he strongly believed the facility would
be of benefit to the Islands and that the dolphinarium would be built
to the highest standards. “I have visited several swim-with-dolphins
programmes over the years and they were phenomenal experiences. I
strongly believe it will benefit the Island,” he had said. In past
media reports Thompson has noted the Dolphin Discovery facility would
be a first-class attraction, with space enough for 20 dolphins but
would hold only eight dolphins in the first instance.

These dolphin facilities have received criticisms the world over, and
the concept of captive dolphin facilities has become increasingly
controversial across the Caribbean region. The fact that that none of
the people involved in the development or facilitation of these sites
here in Cayman was prepared to defend them speaks volumes in the face
of considerable documented evidence to suggest the practice is at best
unpleasant and at worst fundamentally corrupt.

However, across the World Wide Web there are numerous reviews from
people who have visited such facilities throughout the Caribbean
literally raving about the experience, and while there are so many
people willing to pay to swim and ride on dolphins, some suggest it is
unfair to point the finger at those who are tapping into the lucrative
market. With so many other questionable animal activities taking place
around the world, from circuses and bullfighting to horse and dog
racing, the question remains why the developers of the dolphin
facilities in Cayman should be any more vilified than those who are
willing to attend.

However, with Cayman’s overseas image constantly balancing on a
delicate thread many continue to ask whether such facilities would
offer any real benefit to “brand Cayman” when there is a significant
risk that it will cause damage to the islands’ overall image.
Considering the current efforts to attract higher net worth
individuals to the islands since the opening of the Ritz Carlton-Grand
Cayman, and a desire to offer the Sister Islands as a green tourist
option, these facilities could certainly be detrimental to the
development of these aspects of Cayman’s tourism brand.

By and large, the vast majority of customers to the two dolphinariums
will be cruise passengers. They are unlikely to attract overnight
guests that choose Cayman specifically for these parks, as the exact
same facilities are available across the Caribbean.  Balance the
very low net gain to Cayman overall with the very genuine concerns
that, as the two developments near completion, they could have a
negative effect on the ecological integrity of our marine environment,
perhaps more pressure needs to be brought to bear on government to re-
assess the issue and to police these facilities very closely.

In 2006 the government said it had to honour the approval awarded by
the pervious administration, and that if the developers were obeying
the law then there was little to be done. Clifford said it was
important to understand that if the dolphin entertainment facilities
satisfied Planning Department requirements and all other regulatory
demands there are no further impediments to their operation.

“Even if we decide that it is not something we want for Cayman, we
need to put legislation in place for this. However, the legislation
cannot apply retroactively,” Clifford had added at the time.

Even before the doors open, accusations that one of the facilities has
not submitted anti-degradation reports before receiving planning
permission, and an absence of reports from the country’s animal
welfare committee concerning the husbandry of any imported dolphins,
suggest that the parks may not be meeting the country’s current
regulations regarding the welfare of the animals and the marine
environment.

One of the major problems is the growth of algae on the reefs from the
extra nutrients that will be in our local waters from dolphin
excrement, which experts say is already a problem in Cayman because of
the turtle farm and hotel septic tank effluents, which trickles
through the rock and sand into the water. 

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD President, Global Coral Reef Alliance said that
he was alarmed to see a lot of algae in Grand Cayman waters. “To my
surprise, every place I dived around Grand Cayman had too much algae,
and it is urgent that the Cayman Government get a handle on
controlling the problem before it ends up like Jamaica, where the
reefs are now almost entirely dead and covered with masses of weeds,”
he said.

Another issue is maintaining the health and welfare of dolphins in
captivity, which is not easy. The life expectancy of these sea mammals
declines dramatically in parks and the unfortunate death of a dolphin
in Cayman would certainly be damaging to the country’s image. Even
more damaging would be the death of a visitor.

Dolphins themselves can be very dangerous – they are after all wild
animals, even if they are bred in captivity. Earlier this year in the
Netherlands Antilles, three people came close to death when a pair of
performing dolphins reportedly turned on some swimmers because,
experts said, the creatures were exhausted from over performance.
During mating season, it is not unheard of for dolphins to become
extremely aggressive and attack humans biting and head butting them.
There have been several reports over the years of visitors to marine
parks experiencing the other side of these creatures, which are
usually billed as cuddly, sweet, friendly creatures who just love to
play.

There are certainly a number of concerns surrounding the opening of
Cayman’s latesttourist attractions. From the welfare of the animals,
and the safety of the visitors to the damage to brand Cayman. However,
there is, it seems, nothing to stop the impending opening days.

Nevertheless, Adam says he will not give up the fight, and other
campaigners say more support is needed now from the community to put
pressure on the cruise lines who will be the ones selling the
excursions. Preserving the environment and the concept of sustainable
tourism is gaining popularity here, and there is no doubt that
Caymanians are demonstrating a greater willingness than ever before to
object and speak out about things they perceive could be detrimental
to their country. So, even if the first dolphin battle has ended in
defeat, it does not necessarily mean the war is lost.

Category: Special Reports

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