While apologising to tour boat operators who lost business Wednesday, the supervisor of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Marine Unit said closing the Sandbar to water craft was the right thing to do.
‘(The decision) wasn’t made lightly,’ said RCIPS Superintendent Mike Needham. ‘We were very sorry we had to do this, but on the evidence (Wednesday) morning, we decided that it wasn’t safe.’
As of Thursday morning, the Sandbar was back open to boat traffic but operators were still asked to be cautious as conditions in the North Sound remained choppy.
Mr. Needham said several factors played into the decision to close off the Sandbar on Wednesday.
‘The weather and wind conditions were extremely hazardous,’ he said. ‘The officers actually witnessed two boats nearly collide with each other.’
In addition, two cruise ship passengers suffered stings from tiny jellyfish known as sea thimbles. A third tourist was injured when a stingray barb pierced the skin of his arm, a rare event in Grand Cayman where hundreds of tourists routinely swim along with rays in Stingray city.
‘The stingray was thrown onto the tourist (by) the wave action,’ Superintendent Needham said. ‘The animal was likely scared. I don’t think this was a deliberate action by the stingray.’
All three people were treated for minor injuries and released from hospitals Wednesday.
More than a dozen tour boat operators blasted the decision by the RCIPS to close the Sandbar as uninformed or an overreaction.
‘I don’t call it any sense at all,’ said Captain Glen Gleason Ebanks, whose craft The Seafire was docked at Safe Haven Wednesday afternoon instead of taking out passengers. ‘I was at the Sandbar (Wednesday) morning and there were no jellyfish there.’
Mr. Ebanks also questioned whether the decision by the RCIPS indicates a sign of things to come.
‘Next couple of weeks you’re going to see Portuguese Man O’ War (in the North Sound)….they going to close the Sandbar then too?’
Mr. Needham insisted it wasn’t solely the injuries to tourists, but a combination of high winds, choppy waves, and the jellyfish and stingray incidents. He also noted closing the Sandbar was a rare, perhaps even a unique event.
‘I cannot remember that we’ve had to do this before, but I may be corrected on that,’ he said.
The Port Authority Law (1999) gives RCIPS the ability to order boats out of an area if it feels conditions are too hazardous.
But several boat operators said Marine Unit officers should have checked with them simply before making the decision to close down the Sandbar.
‘There were more sea thimbles at the Coral Gardens than there were at the Sandbar,’ said Doye Kelly of Kelly’s Watersports. ‘The Sandbar conditions were great. I had no complaints.’
‘They’re really overreacting,’ said boat operator Elden Ebanks.
Some operators also said they feared police were trying to keep the numbers down at the Sandbar because they feel too many craft are already in that area.
‘It’s for others to decide whether the Sandbar is getting too crowded,’ said Mr. Needham. ‘If tourists lose their lives as a result of sea conditions that aren’t suitable to go out in then that would cause more problems than just a loss of income.’
Leader of Opposition McKeeva Bush met with the tour operators Wednesday afternoon to hear their concerns about the situation.
He advised them to talk with tourism officials and members of the Legislative Assembly, who are drawing up marine regulations for Stingray City and the Sandbar.
‘I realise there needs to be regulations put in place,’ said Mr. Bush. ‘But not to the extent that it will destroy people’s business.’
Minister of Tourism Charles Clifford told the Caymanian Compass that he would unveil a draft of the proposed regulations at a press briefing today.