Dolphinarium can inspire local youth to pursue their marine science dreams

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Charismatic animals like dolphins create high emotion in people: the passion of small children who are amazed by their acrobatics, the dreams of students who want to become dolphin trainers, those who work passionately and tirelessly for the welfare of animals who cannot speak for themselves. I believe these don't have to be opposing sides.

I write in support of Trudie and Neil Prior, who have selflessly invested financially and emotionally to keep the treasure of Coral World Ocean Park available to the Virgin Islands community. As their first Curator of Exhibits and Education, I have seen firsthand that for the management and owners of this facility, animal welfare always came before profit. Whatever the animals needed, whether it was the highest quality of lighting to keep corals alive, or new seawater pumps to maximize the volume of water flowing through the exhibits, to flying an animal to a veterinary hospital in Florida, the investment was made. What impressed me most when I accepted their offer to help rebuild the new Coral World park was that they were in this business to give back to the community. Of course Coral World can't exist in St. Thomas without the tourism industry - and you should believe that the Priors would not provide anything but the best possible environment and care for their animals. To do anything less would be self-defeating.

Coral World Ocean Park provides one of the few places where Virgin Islands residents, especially those who don't dive or snorkel , can get close to many unusual creatures. Coral World has been gradually adding more and more opportunities for people to connect with animals. Thousands of guests have known the joys of gently making contact with an animal they never dreamed of being in the water with. From feeding the stingrays, sliding into a pool with sea turtles or sharks, or sitting on the ground just inches from a 400-pound sea lion, Coral World has created a safe means to enjoy these creatures. The housing of marine mammals in captivity is carefully regulated by the federal government, meaning that Coral World is accountable for maintaining a proper environment and professional medical care for their dolphins. Coral World has demonstrated excellence in care of their rescued Patagonian sea lions, and we should trust that they will have the same standards and diligence in maintaining a stimulating, healthy home for dolphins.

Coral World Ocean Park supports community education, conservation, and is a place where youngsters' dreams begin. Those first encounters with the magical underwater world, and the creatures within, are a priceless motivator. I currently work with students in the biology and marine biology majors at UVI, where I am now an Associate Professor of Biology. Over the last 10 years teaching at UVI, I have seen a dramatic increase in the number of local students in our classes in swimming, diving, marine biology-and even earning master's degrees in Marine and Environmental Science. Many of these students grew up gazing into Coral World aquaria, dreaming of being a marine biologist one day. Coral World has continued to support them with free admission for their school visits, employment, internships, and community events.

Housing captive-bred and raised dolphins in an enclosure in Water Bay may even have unexpected benefits. What if the passions to protect the dolphin's health and welfare resulted in better wastewater management and reduction of runoff into their home? What if we put our energies into making it possible for the dolphins, and all of us who enjoy the marine habitat, to have access to a clean healthy bay?

- Donna Nemeth, Ph.D., UVI Marine Science Center, St Thomas

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