Dolphin boycott forewarned

Three prominent figures in the dive industry have come together to speak out against the introduction of captive dolphin facilities here, warning the country’s tourism could suffer from it in the long term.

President of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and marine environmentalist Martha Watkins Gilkes and pioneer underwater film producer and photographer Stan Waterman had been filming and diving in Cayman for a week on board the M/V Cayman Aggressor.

They were joined on Friday by award winning underwater photographer Cathy Church to speak out against captive dolphin facilities. They had been brought together with the help of Keep Dolphins Free in the Cayman Islands group leader Billy Adam.

At least two dolphin facilities for West Bay, one at Morgan’s Harbour (Dolphin Cove) and one at the old Turtle Farm site (Dolphin Discovery), have been given permission to set up here subject to certain conditions.

Ms Gilkes warned that Cayman could be boycotted by the dive community if captive dolphin facilities are established here, noting that most divers are environmentally minded and that dolphin waste from such facilities can cause algae blooms that kill surrounding reefs.

‘A lot of divers are very eco-tourist minded and they could possibly boycott coming to Cayman, and that’s a strong word and I’m not saying I’m encouraging or threatening it, because I live in the Caribbean and I would hate to see any of our islands boycotted, but divers are very environmentally astute and aware and we are all aware of the terrible stress coral is in worldwide from global warming, pollution and abuse by man.

‘I would like to suggest that the Minister of Tourism should carefully consider the potential damage to the tourism product if they go ahead with this sort of development.

‘The internet is so powerful these days and suddenly you see hundreds of sights saying to boycott Cayman.’

Minister for Tourism Charles Clifford could not be reached for comment by press time.

Ms Gilkes noted how so much of Cayman’s tourism comes from divers and snorkellers.

According to Department of Tourism research, in 2005 over 40 per cent of visitors participated in dive activities and just over 60 per cent participated in snorkelling.

‘They come here to enjoy your beautiful coral reefs and the life that flourishes on them, so in my mind, to allow a project that has scientific proof and documentation that it’s going to kill the reef, it just doesn’t add up if you ask me.’

Mr. Waterman said, ‘It is egregious that it is happening in an area that cares about ecotourism and for which the sea is your golden goose.

‘I hope those in your government here understand that and know what they’re bringing in.’

One of the conditions for opening up facilities here is that applicants must obtain a statement from the Department of Environment that acceptable programmes for environmental quality control are proposed, which would prevent environmental degradation and not lead to any serious or irreversible damage to the environment.

The companies setting up here, Dolphin Cove and Dolphin Discovery, deny that the environment will be impacted from such a small number of dolphins (eight at Dolphin Discovery and 12 at Dolphin Cove) and because of environmental monitoring that will take place at the facilities.

But Ms Gilkes noted environmental damage from dolphin faeces is well documented in scientific studies done by the Global Coral Reef Alliance on their website globalcoral.org.

Ms Gilkes said there had been major environmental damage from a dolphin facility in Antigua (Dolphin Fantaseas, which was taken over by Dolphin Discovery in 2004) and the Antiguan government closed them down in 2004 because of this damage. She campaigned with environmental group ABITPC to get the facility closed down.

When that facility originally opened in Antigua a major dive website posted a boycott against Antigua because of this.

‘I can’t tell you how many divers didn’t come to Antigua, and Antigua is not nearly the big dive destination that Cayman is because we’re not nearly as developed in the diving world, but there was a lot on the internet and I know that our government people were bombarded with letter of protest. It does get people’s attention.’

Ms Gilkes said her question is, ‘Is it worth it?’

‘When you think, who is really benefiting, is it the government, the people who live on the island, or the owners of the facility?’ She answered that it is the latter that makes the money.

Mr. Waterman, who has been coming to Cayman for nearly 50 years each year to dive, said, ‘The bottom line is money, not the health of the animals or the ecological justice of what is happening. As one of the first inculcated into what we call the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, I know all of the people who have been asked to join that organisation and I myself will contact all of them and suggest that they back this block to the dolphin development here.’

On the subject of keeping them in captivity, Ms Church said, ‘They are a close knit family and to rip them away and put them in a small pond is just anathema to the things that we stand for here in the Cayman Islands It certainly is anathema to the religious people who feel that God’s creatures should be loved, and it is certainly totally opposite of the way the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame feels about our standards here in the Cayman Islands and the way we feel.’

Ms Church noted that Boatswain’s Beach has been ruled out as a possible venue for January 2007’s Hall of Fame ceremony because of the possibility of a dolphin facility being set up there, based on a majority board decision.

Ms Gilkes said, ‘If the Board of the Hall of Fame feels this strongly, just take that as a tiny little bit of how strong divers feel about protection of the marine environment and particularly marine mammals; these beautiful marine mammals for who we get double heartbeats when we see them swimming in the wild.’

She continued, ‘There are so few places left that are really eco-friendly, and when an island is known for that, that’s a marketing tool in itself that can attract a lot of people. Because people are looking for that back to nature experience, not zoos and parks and prisons that imprison dolphins.’

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