Dolphinarium moving forward with key vote
Published: October 22, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Coral World is one step closer to building its "Dolphin Experience."
Members of the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning Committee heard testimony from people on both sides of the dolphinarium addition to Coral World, and they liked what they heard.
The committee, by a 6-0 vote, approved an amendment Monday evening to Coral World's existing lease agreement that would allow the venue to construct an addition for an exhibit that Coral World's owners said they have been trying to put into place for years.
Senators Janette Millin Young, Donald Cole, Sammuel Sanes, Diane Capehart, Myron Jackson and Shawn-Michael Malone voted to send the Coastal Zone Management permit for the dolphinarium to the full legislative body for action. Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly was absent.
The permit is expected to be on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting of the full Legislature.
Coral World General Manager Trudie Prior told the Senate committee that Coral World never has made a profit but that she and her husband, Neil, are willing to invest about $5.2 million to make the exhibit happen.
In total, since taking the attraction over in 1997, the couple has invested $17 million, including the purchase of Coral World and the shortfalls it has experienced.
"Helping Coral World would help the V.I.," she said.
A dolphin exhibit would bring about 25 additional jobs to the venue's existing 65 and also would bring in more tourists, Prior said.
That sentiment was echoed by representatives of the territory's tourism officials, including the V.I. Tourism Department.
"I've heard, 'Your destination's old. Your destination's tired. Your destination needs something new,'" said Lisa Hamilton, president of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association.
Though there also is a similar dolphin exhibit on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, the Coral World exhibit would attract an additional 25,000 to 35,000 visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands annually, Prior said. The territory, she estimated, loses about 14,000 visitors to the British Virgin Islands because of their already existing dolphin exhibit.
Coral World's would be better, she said.
"Our goal is to be better than Sea World," said Lee Kellar, Coral World's general curator.
Coral World's exhibit would provide a space of about 75,000 square feet of water, 10 times the size of what regulations currently require for the dolphins.
The 2-acre exhibit would be on the south side of Coral World's property, projecting out into Water Bay.
The CZM permit application - an amendment to Coral World's current lease - contains a land swap, in which Coral World would give back to the V.I. government about 28,000 square feet of shallow water in exchange for a different 28,000 square feet of water that is deep enough to allow dolphins to occupy it.
Despite the seeming enthusiasm of senators, the deal is not yet done, leaving some of its opponents hopeful.
Four people showed up Monday evening to offer reasons why the facility should not be built, primarily concerns about the environmental effects that such a facility would have on Water Bay.
Opponents argued that the waste from the dolphins would disrupt the natural ecosystem, and that it would also increase the amount of waste disposed by people visiting.
"Our environment is so much easier to destroy than it is to replace," said Fiona Stuart, one of the opponents.
Others also said that it is inhumane to keep dolphins contained, though Prior assured the committee that the dolphins will be born into a captive environment, and Coral World will not take any animals from the wild.
Prior also noted that assessments done by the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources indicated that the effect on water quality in the bay would not be drastic. Additionally, the exhibit would be built so as to allow the water to flow in and out of it naturally.
"It's a big open space," Kellar said, noting that the space would be confined by netting, rather than glass or concrete.
Coral World officials have said previously that the enclosure will be built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
The plans for the exhibit include an observation area; a "maternity ward," where pregnant and nursing dolphins could be enclosed; a medical ward; and a "sanctuary," where the dolphins would be able to get away from the observation of people.
If the full Senate approves the amendment, Coral World also would need to seek a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers approving the design.
Once the enclosure is built, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also will need to approve the facility before Coral World can bring in the dolphins.
Then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries would need to approve an import permit for the dolphins.
And, then Coral World has to pay for the dolphins, a cost that Prior did not want to disclose to the Senate committee.
"It's expensive," she said. "It's expensive."
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.