Anger as Grand Turk dolphin park moves a step closer


Gemma Handy reports on reactions to a dolphin park to be built at a Grand Turk site. International animal rights campaigners are battling against dolphin parks in Turks and Caicos Islands—while planning chiefs confirm outline permission has been granted for the Grand Turk site.

[. . .] “Cruel greed”, “exploitation” and “nothing short of water circuses” are just some of the accusations from heavyweight critics which include world champion freediver Tanya Streeter.

Ogail Awad, deputy director of planning, revealed that proposals by Dolphin Cove had moved a step closer for the proposed North Creek facility. Mr Awad said outline planning permission – the first stage in securing official approval – was given in the “last few months”. The Jamaica-based firm has one year from the date it became effective to complete the next stage of the process which includes submitting detailed development plans and completing environmental impact assessments now underway.

Meanwhile, Ms Streeter – a long-time TCI goodwill ambassador who famously set her 2002 world freediving record off the coast of Providenciales – has publicly condemned the scheme. “In this day and age, where we understand the welfare needs of marine mammals, it’s nothing short of cruel greed that motivates anyone to be in the business of keeping these intelligent animals in captivity,” she told the Weekly News. “I am sad that a country that has so much natural beauty would seek to stoop to the level of torturing dolphins in the name of tourism.” Ms Streeter had a word of caution for advocates who say the park would enhance the capital island’s touristic offerings. “Grand Turk is such a unique island and that would be lost if a dolphinarium is put there,” she added.

When Jamaica-based Dolphin Cove first proposed building attractions in Grand Turk and Providenciales in 2012 a maelstrom of controversy ensued. Thousands signed a petition demanding the application be thrown out and planning bosses were bombarded with more than 100 angry letters from across the globe.

Further contention erupted when it emerged that then Governor Ric Todd had amended regulations to allow marine mammals to be kept for display, exhibition and performance. At the time, Mr Todd lauded the economic boost he said would “significantly complement” the country’s tourism product.

Locally, opinions regarding the multi-million dollar investment remain deeply divided. Critics say dolphin parks are anachronistic and at odds with the destination’s high-end branding as they appeal mainly to lower end mass tourism. Many believe they’re inhumane too, as dolphins have long been considered highly intelligent and cognitive creatures with one of the highest ratios of brain size to body mass in the animal world, capable of emotions, personalities and developing complex social structures.

[. . .] Billed as Jamaica’s number one attraction, Dolphin Cove has been in operation since 2001 with a handful of outlets across the island. It plans to spend several million dollars rolling out parks across the region.

One reason the TCI may appeal is its use of the US dollar, the currency in which it is most likely to capitalise on its investment. Despite the post-Blackfish controversy – the 2013 documentary that accused SeaWorld of mistreating killer whales – marine mammal parks remain popular in parts of the Caribbean, driven by a thriving cruise industry. There are currently around 30 in operation in the region’s holiday hotspots, including the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Dominican Republic.

Some believe they have a conservation role to play, a theory charity Born Free, which is campaigning for the closure of all marine mammal parks worldwide, rigorously rebuffs. [. . .]

Susan Blehr, executive director of the TCSPCA, another vocal opponent, said: “When the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction and closing these facilities, our government could get so much mileage by saying no. Instead, we are redefining the whole slogan of the country which is ‘beautiful by nature’.” [. . .]

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