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HomeNewsArchivesCoral World Pinning Its Hopes for Survival on Sea Lions

Coral World Pinning Its Hopes for Survival on Sea Lions

June 28, 2006 — Coral World wants to bring sea lions to the East End marine park and they need to make changes to the existing facility to accommodate the large marine mammals they hope to take in.
The project is threefold: to immediately provide a home for four stranded South American sea lions who are currently living at a recently closed facility in Thailand, to create an interactive commercial attraction for the park and to become a stranding center for other marine mammals.
Gertrude "Trudie" Prior, Coral World general manager, came before the Coastal Zone Management Commission this week to state the case for the major Coastal Zone Permit that will be required to make the changes at the park to accommodate the sea lions.
"For many years Coral World has been active in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of stranded turtles," Prior said. "We have not, however, been in a position to offer practical assistance to stranded marine mammals." Prior said a dehydrated manatee lost in Water Bay died last year because "we had neither the expertise nor the facilities to assist the animal and prevent its death."
Along with establishing the facilities, Prior has brought in three marine mammal experts to assist in establishing the sea lions at the park.
Peter Noah, vice president of operations for Coral World, worked on the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation project, along with Jeff Foster, recently appointed director of special projects. Foster was awarded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Hero Award earlier this month for his volunteer work rescuing human and animal victims of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Southeast Asia.
Dr. Robert Stevens, who has been hired as a consultant on the project, has extensive experience, according to Prior, in marine mammal work. He has worked with dolphins and sea lions at attractions in Key Largo, Fla., for more than 20 years.
The CZM permit would allow Coral World to create a 480 foot by 216 foot netlike enclosure around Coral World's Undersea Observatory. The enclosure would be segmented to allow an encounter area for the sea lions and other areas for the sea turtles already housed at the marine park and outgrowing their current domicile. Another area would be available for rescued or stranded animals.
On the land side, the park seeks to reconfigure its current pools to make a larger area for the sea lions.
Of concern on the water-based enclosure is a healthy coral community, some of which might need to be moved in the process of constructing the enclosure.
Carla Joseph, president of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas, said she had recently observed the lively colony and expressed concerns about the specifics of the plan to relocate the coral.
Victor Somme III, director of Planning and Environmental Protection's Coastal Zone Management division, had the same concerns. He made it a condition of any permitting that Coral World provide specific information about where the coral would be relocated and how it would be achieved.
Helen Gjessing, chairwoman of the League of Women Voters Planning and Environmental Quality Committee, said the Environmental Assessment Report (EAR) for the project was vague in several areas, including where the coral was concerned. She said the EAR isn't specific enough relative to the sea lions either.
Her written statement asked, "Is it known that this species of sea lion can remain healthy in our water temperatures and withstand any diseases foreign to it?"
Other concerns addressed were the fecal matter produced by the animals and whether they would attract predators to nearby Coki Beach, such as sharks.
Noah said the fecal matter -which he said does not float – would be primarily contained in the land-side enclosure and then filtered through the park's wastewater treatment facility. He said the animals could be trained to only "poop" in that area. However, he said, should any errant fecal matter escape into the ocean it would either be vacuumed up or he thought it would be insignificant enough that the normal sea movement would clean it away.
Foster told Charlene Francis, who regularly swims at Coki Beach, that sharks don't recognize sea lions in the Caribbean as prey.
After the meeting he said, "the sharks are out there," but they don't have much interest in human beings either. He said in California – where sea lions are their prey – that if sharks bite a human by accident, they spit them out.
Shark attacks in the Virgin Islands are nearly unheard of. The International Shark Attack File reports only two confirmed shark attacks in the territory, in 1963 and 1992. One testifier took an anthropomorphic approach to the matter. Local veterinarian Dr. Andrew Williamson read a prepared speech from the point of view of a sea lion being taken from its native environment to a new place to then be exploited. Williamson, however, offended three of the commissioners by taking his story a step further and "metaphorically" comparing the sea lions' plight to the Middle Passage.
Commissioners Somme, Austin "Babe" Monsanto and Fern LaBorde each took a turn blasting Williamson for comparing Africans to sea lions. "I am deeply offended," Sommes said.
Williamson attempted to apologize, but Monsanto said he was only adding "insult to injury."
Reading from a prepared statement, student Sean LaPlace said, "Bringing them here would be a huge injustice to them." LaPlace made several references to California sea lions' aggressive behavior and asked questions about how certain characteristics would be handled.
He finished by saying, "Many of the concerned residents sympathize with Coral World's present financial situation. In fact, we would like to help Coral World … succeed." But LaPlace said, "We need to know that any possible … solution is indeed in the best interest of not only the animals in question, but the people as well."
Prior has struggled in the territory's ailing economy to keep the marine park open and flourishing. She and her husband, Neil Prior, and partners Henry Wheatley and Paul Lichtman spent $8 million dollars to reconstruct the park after it was destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn — on top of the nearly $1 million in purchase and start-up costs. The park has steadily lost about a half million dollars a year since then.
Parks all over the country and the world are establishing encounter attractions with dolphins and other sea mammals. Currently guests at Coral World can have a shark encounter in the shark shallows pool.
People would pay about $70 to have an encounter experience with the sea lions.
The encounter, Prior said in an interview recently, would not involve the sea lions doing anything that is not natural to the animal.
Noah, who gets excited talking about the sea lions, said, "Sea lions are very personable." He said once they are in captivity — which the four sea lions that would be coming to St. Thomas have been for more than three years – one has to devise activities to keep them engaged.
"Training keeps the animals active," he said, adding that it keeps them challenged as they are in the wild.
In her remarks Tuesday night in the DPNR conference room on St. Thomas, Prior said, "A close encounter with a live animal demonstrating species-appropriate behavior can leave a lasting impression in the minds of visitors."
She said it also has the added benefit of attracting visitors. "Unless we can attract significantly more visitors than we are drawing now, Coral World will never be able to achieve commercial viability."
Prior believes the encounter will lead to people asking what they can do to protect animals in the wild who are dying in droves when they are caught by gill nets and by other means.
She quoted Confucius who said, "Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve
me and I will understand."
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