Director: Turtle Farm must survive

The man in charge at Boatswain’s Beach has vowed to make changes in the wake of a damning report which showed apparent breaches of Cayman Islands Water Authority and Electricity Laws at the tourist attraction.

Boatswain’s Beach Acting Managing Director Joseph Ebanks told the Caymanian Compass in a wide-ranging interview earlier this week that steps are well under way to correct planning deficiencies which led to the facility obtaining electricity in violation of a temporary agreement. He also said steps were being taken to obtain a provisional effluent discharge licence within the month.

Mr. Ebanks said there was no plan to either close the facility down temporarily or cut back operating hours. He said, as far as he’s concerned, Boatswain’s Beach (also known as the Cayman Turtle Farm) must become financially viable.

‘We have a $66 million debt,’ Mr. Ebanks said. ‘(If) you shut this place down your bond-holders are going to call in the bond. Where is government going to find $66 million to pay the thing?’

‘We have to sell our way out of it.’

A report from the Office of the Complaints Commissioner released last month found that Turtle Farm managers had known for years that the operation was discharging unregulated amounts of waste into the ocean, but didn’t manage to solve the problem. The review found anecdotal evidence that coral reefs in the waters surrounding the West Bay facility have been damaged or destroyed from that discharge.

The report also revealed that a temporary electrical hook up for the Turtle Farm buildings and swimming pools continued to be used beyond the life of the agreement, and that no permanent electrical metering system had been installed because the buildings had not received certificates of occupancy from the Planning Department.

Mr. Ebanks said a consultant has been hired to review wastewater discharges, and was expected to produce a report for the Water Authority-Cayman to review within the next few weeks. If and when that report is accepted, the Turtle Farm will receive a provisional discharge permit.

The facility is installing filters in the turtle ‘touch tanks’ where visitors can see and pet the creatures. Mr. Ebanks said staff is also making a better effort to capture items like food and solid waste before they escape the tanks.

He estimated corrective measures to obtain the discharge permit would cost ‘in the tens of thousands of dollars’ but could not provide an exact estimate.

After the provisional discharge permit is received, the Turtle Farm will have to continue testing effluent discharge samples, which are sent to a lab in the US for review. Those tests will have to pass muster with the Water Authority for Boatswain’s Beach to maintain its discharge licence.

Boatswain’s Beach is also in the process of obtaining certificates of occupancy for 14 buildings, two swimming pools and a ‘predator’ tank where a number of sharks are kept. Those certificates must be approved before permanent electrical meters can be installed.

Right now, Mr. Ebanks said those certificates have been granted for five of the 14 buildings. The pools still need approval from the planning department.

The major cost to meet planning requirements will likely by the installation of electrical breakers for water pumps in the swimming areas. Mr. Ebanks estimated those would cost US $110,000. Structural approvals must also be granted for the buildings and the swimming areas.

Mr. Ebanks took over as Acting Managing Director of Boatswain’s Beach in the latter half of 2007. It was unclear why the facility’s previous managers had allowed the temporary electrical supply agreement to expire without getting certificates of occupancy and permanent electrical meters.

‘There was a temporary approval for electrical in order to test the (park) equipment,’ Mr. Ebanks said. ‘But that was never then followed up in order to obtain full approval.

‘When I brought it to their attention, the board didn’t believe we didn’t have the approvals that were necessary,’ he added.

Boatswain’s management has since contracted with local firm Corporate Electric to guide them through the planning approval process, but Mr. Ebanks was uncertain how long it would take for all buildings and swimming pools to receive those approvals.

‘We broke the law’

Mr. Ebanks acknowledged in his interview with the complaints commissioner’s office that Boatswain’s Beach had broken the law with regard to planning approvals and waste discharge permits. He sought to expand upon that statement during the Compass interview.

‘When I said to the OCC ‘we broke the law,’ it meant that when we discovered it, we could have shut (the facility) down, or resigned and walked away,’ he said. ‘When we (decided to stay) we became a part of the breach of law.’

He also stressed that he was open and honest in all of his dealings with the OCC and the press in discussing the issues surrounding the Turtle Farm/Boatswain’s Beach.

‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ Mr. Ebanks said. ‘There has not been one negative part of this operation that I have not disclosed to the public.

‘My biggest problem was to convince my wife and children that I (personally) haven’t done anything wrong.’

Mr. Ebanks also pointed out that Boatswain’s staff performed well under major public scrutiny which included the OCC report and a police enquiry into the debt financing of the facility’s expansion.

Business plan

Mr. Ebanks presented a long-term business plan to the Boatswain’s Beach Board of Directors this week which set out goals for making the tourist attraction financially whole again.

First step, he said, was for the facility to increase market share.

Right now, it’s estimated Boatswain’s has gotten 17 per cent of all visitors who came to Cayman over the past year.

‘It’s not enough,’ Mr. Ebanks said. ‘But we’re going to increase that market share. It’s not going to happen overnight, but with the right marketing and customer service, we’re going to get more of that market share.’

He compared Boatswain’s Beach to Stingray City snorkel and swimming tours, which are estimated to have received some 51 per cent of the visitor’s market share in the past year.

‘I don’t think we’ll compete with Stingray City,’ he said, but added there have been some encouraging signs of late.

First, although the total number of visitors to Boatswain’s Beach during the recent tourism ‘high season’ was less than what the facility saw last year, it actually made more money this year.

From January through June of this year, there were more than 166,000 visitors at Boatswain’s which led to revenues of $2.3 million. From January through June of 2007, there were more than 188,000 visitors, but revenues were $1.9 million.

Mr. Ebanks credited a revised pricing structure for the difference. The park is charging slightly more to visitors who come over on cruise ship tours, the bulk of the visitors; and charging less to families or smaller groups who visit the park on their own.

The Turtle Farm is still losing huge amounts of money on a month-to-month basis, but recently those losses have become less.

For instance in July 2007, the loss was almost $639,000 for the month; in April 2008 the facility lost about $313,000. But Mr. Ebanks warned it was too early to tell if the numbers represented a trend.

He also said electricity, telephone and water bills for the park have been cut drastically over the past year through conservation measures.

‘We’re becoming more efficient,’ Mr. Ebanks said.

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