Hearing on controversial dolphin exhibit set


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ST. THOMAS - The proposed dolphin encounter exhibit at Coral World Ocean Park has sparked controversy in the Virgin Islands community, and for weeks people have been weighing-in on both sides of the issue.

Those against it primarily are concerned about the health and safety of the dolphins, although opponents also have raised a myriad other concerns about the facility's environmental impact.

Supporters of the project say the territory needs new and exciting tourist attractions to keep the V.I. economy afloat.

Coral World officials say the facility will be state-of-the-art and a prime example of how to have a responsible dolphin exhibit to promote education and conservation of the marine animals.

Opposing viewpoints

Fiona Stuart has organized an ad hoc group of people, called V.I. Dolphin Voices, who are opposed to the project.

She said she first heard about the Coral World project in April and began organizing against it in May.

A petition has been circulating online that has gathered about 2,200 signatures from all over the world urging Coral World and the government to stop the project from moving forward.

She said the dolphins will be entertaining visitors seven days a week during the busy season, something most humans are not willing to do.

"Even those who love their jobs usually want a day off," Stuart said.

In many letters to the editor published in The Daily News during the last few months, opponents have said dolphins suffer depression, ulcers and even death from the stress of captivity.

Coral World General Manager Trudie Prior said the dolphins will be procured from a Caribbean facility as an existing social group. She would not say what facility the animals would be coming from.

The dolphins were born in captivity and have only known "human care," she said.

Stuart said that argument is flawed, because it still means that the dolphins' parents or grandparents likely were captured from the wild. Capturing wild dolphins for captivity is a cruel practice that often results in tearing apart family units and the slaughter of many animals, Stuart said.

Opponents have expressed concern about confining wild animals that typically swim many miles in the open ocean each day.

"They say the dolphins will be swimming freely in a 2-acre pen," Stuart said. "That doesn't constitute swimming freely as far as I'm concerned."

The dolphins

The dolphins used at Coral World will be common bottlenose dolphins, a native species in the Virgin Islands waters, Prior said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, two variants of bottlenose dolphins exist - inshore dolphins and offshore dolphins.

"They are genetically different," Prior said.

Inshore dolphins stick close to the shoreline and do not travel very far.

"They don't stray very far from their home territory," she said.

Offshore dolphins travel long distances, often swimming 60 to 100 miles a day in the open ocean.

Prior said the dolphins coming to Coral World are inshore bottlenose dolphins.

Presentations

Stuart said she also is concerned about forcing dolphins to perform tricks for the entertainment of the public. It is unnatural behavior for the creatures, she said.

"We don't like to call them shows," Prior said. "What we do are presentations."

During the presentations, the trainers will take the animals through a set of behaviors as a demonstration.

"The behaviors are not what people call tricks," Prior said. "They are things that the animals do naturally, and then we encourage them to repeat that behavior."

For example, dolphins jump naturally in the wild, and the trainers would work with the animals to jump or show a fin on command.

Stuart said Coral World's statements about the exhibit showcasing the animals natural behavior is false. Trained, captive animals do not behave the way they would in the wild, she said.

"There's no educational value in seeing an animal exhibit unnatural behavior," she said. "Really they're being treated like little clowns."

Water quality

Stuart said the water quality in Water Bay has always had issues with runoff and sediment in the bay, and she said she is worried that pollutants washed into the bay by heavy rains would hurt the dolphins.

"Water Bay has limited wave action, so it takes longer to flush out," Stuart said.

According to the Coastal Zone Management application, the construction of the dolphin encounter actually will reduce the current flow in Water Bay by as much as 25 percent.

"So, there's going to be less flow in Water Bay than there is now," Stuart said.

Prior said Coral World has been monitoring Water Bay for a long time, and they would not risk such a large investment if they believed it would be a danger to the dolphins.

"We want to make sure they have the very best conditions," Prior said. "The water quality is just fine."

Coral World General Curator Lee Kellar said according to their studies, the water in the dolphin habitat will change over about every 14 minutes. The water in the entire bay changes over every 27 to 40 minutes, Kellar said.

Safety

If there ever is a problem with contaminants in the bay, Coral World has put several contingencies in place to evacuate the dolphins to protect their health.

The facility will include medical pools that can be lined and serviced by a system to filter and pump out the water and keep it clean for the animals.

"Once the situation is resolved, the animals can go back out to their habitat," Prior said.

In the event of a hurricane or major event that would pose a risk to the dolphins, the animals can be brought inside the two story building and placed on specially designed transport stretchers submerged in tanks of water. If the facility is destroyed by a storm or other event, and the dolphins will not be able to return to their habitat for a length of time, they will be flown to a facility in Florida, Kellar said.

Breeding

According to the Coral World Coastal Zone Management application, the dolphin habitat will have a maternity pen and be equipped to do births.

"I don't like to call it a breeding program, because that suggests that we are going to be intentionally breeding dolphins," Prior said,

Kellar said the dolphins Coral World will be getting are young and it would take about four or five years for them to reach breeding age. He said happy, healthy dolphins living in a social group likely will begin to mate naturally at some point.

At first, the baby dolphins likely will be kept, but if the population exceeds about a dozen, Coral World may use contraception to prevent additional births, Prior said.

"We may exchange or sell some dolphins," Prior said. "But we're not engaging in this to be breeding dolphins."

Economic gain

Prior said Coral World has always lost money, but in the last three years, the park has lost more than $1 million each year.

She expects the dolphin exhibit to draw more people to Coral World and help the business, and to draw more people to the island and offer a new attraction to spice up St. Thomas' tourism product.

She said she and her husband, Neil Prior, are making the capital investment in the dolphin project out of their own pockets. The facility alone will cost about $5.2 million, but that does not include the cost of the dolphins or the anticipated $2 million annual operational costs.

About 25 people - from extra security guards to dolphin trainers - will be hired to run the dolphin encounter.

Some opponents have expressed concern that Coral World will lay people off in the slow summer season, leaving the dolphins without adequate care. Trudie Prior said Coral World never lays anyone off as a policy. She said sometimes hours are cut back, but she would never reduce staffing levels at the expense of the dolphins' welfare.

The USVI Hotel and Tourism Association - of which Trudie Prior is the chairwoman - as well as the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce support the Coral World dolphin project.

Stuart said exploiting dolphins for financial gain is revolting and other options to make money and bring business to the territory are out there.

"I'm a business person, I'm not anti-tourism," she said. "But there are so many better, more responsible things we could be doing."

She said instead, the territory should be focusing on eco-tourism attractions that support observing wildlife in its natural habitat through snorkeling, diving or kayaking.

"And I'm doubtful that this $5 million investment will yield what Coral World is hoping it will," Stuart said.

She said she is concerned that the dolphin exhibit will not bring in additional dollars, just move money away from other existing attractions.

Trudie Prior disagrees.

Right now, many cruise ship passengers are booking dolphin tours to a facility on Tortola, which is a whole day excursion.

"If they come here, they still have half a day, they have more than half a day, and they can spend that shopping or go out on another excursion," Trudie Prior said.

Taxis will make money bringing more people to Coral World, the vendors on Coki Beach also will benefit, and the 25 new hires will circulate money in the community, she said.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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