Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Noah's Park - the Sea Lion disaster.

When Mykl received a call on her mobile midday on Sunday she was surprised to see the 911 digits appearing on her phone’s screen. They had kept her number on file as being someone who could deal with Turtle related problems and I suppose general environmental questions that they couldn’t answer. The dispatcher told mykl that there was a “seal” on the road at Darkwood Beach and asked her to come down and give some assistance to the police. Mykl Clovis is an Environmental Awareness Group advisor and runs their turtle program as well.
Anyway, in an amazing bit of fate she had received an email from an environmental group in one of the other islands last week which told a story of a marine “park” disaster. During the passing of Hurricane Omar large waves broke the concrete barrier of the US $16 million dollar facility called Marine world. This passage was taken from a St. Kitts website:

“Marine World St. Kitts – Currently under construction on South Friar’s Bay Beach on the island’s southern peninsula, Marine World boasts 4 acres of world class facilities. It will feature a stingray lagoon, dolphin encounters including swimming with dolphins, an educational hut where visitors can learn about marine life, a beach bar and grill and a nature trail and aviary with tropical birds, butterflies and even a few local green vervet monkeys. The park will also showcase other interaction-friendly marine creatures such as sea lions and nurse sharks. In addition, Marine World St. Kitts will offer watersports that are carefully selected in order not to disturb the marine life. To provide the best possible environment for the dolphins, the park will have a marine biologist on site, large dolphin areas, constant filtration of seawater and maximum utilization of natural surroundings. Total cost of the project is approximately $16 million. Construction is expected to be complete for a summer 2006 opening.”

Thankfully the zoo didn’t have dolphins at the time as they would have surely perished. Captive dolphins lose the ability to feed for themselves as did (alien species) sea lions in this case.
Anyway, with this info Mykl tried four numbers listed for the St. Kitts zoo all of which didn’t seem to be working. We jumped in my truck and headed down to the scene and what a scene it was. It was like something out of a weird nightmare unfolding before us. Right in the middle of the main “highway” in the corner of the road there was a massive crowd of people and police. Cars were left parked all over the road and in the middle of all the chaos was a very emaciated sea lion. I think several people who had helped save a wild seal that had washed up a few years ago were trying to get it into a tub and into the back of a truck. The sea lion wasn’t playing that game though and despite several people and police officers trying to contain it the lion managed to get over the concrete wall coming down on the rocky beach side. The Tamarind Hills development which is tearing up the hillside and adjacent shoreline wasn’t the ideal place for a sea lion to come up. People were screaming commands left and right trying to control the crowd and prevent people or the animal from getting hurt. Several officers were trying to get the road unblocked too, but despite their valiant efforts the situation was out of control. “Put the animal back in the water” shouted one guy, then another, and another. “Take it to the ice factory” shouted others. Concerned people had brought bags and bags of ice for the animal and bottles of fresh water were being poured on it. Imagine being in the Caribbean for 6 months, getting lost, not eating anything for a month then finally washing up on a beach and getting ice water thrown all over your face and body.
On the way to the beach I called Mrs. Kelsick who is a good friend’s mom. She is originally from St. Kitts and I knew her brother was involved in government there. He may have even been minister of tourism at one time. Anyway, she said she would have him call me. Of course there was no phone reception below the hill where the sea lion chaos was unfolding. With all the people screaming and yelling and the animal in obvious distress I knew something had to be done quickly to contain the situation. I asked a friend who manages Sugar Ridge’s landscaping if he knew where we could get some fencing wire and some poles. Sure enough he was the man. Melrose and I jumped back in my truck and managed somehow to escape the area bound for his house. On the way there Marine World General Manager, Peter Noah, finally called me from St. Kitts. He had gotten my message from the Kelsicks and said that he and his team would be in a plane and on their way to Antigua within an hour. He said that they would be sending a 60 foot boat that evening as well. He told me that we didn’t need to fence it and all we needed to do was to leave the animal alone until he got there. YA RIGHT!
When I left the beach just minutes before a fleet of Sunday jet skies and boats had arrived and joined in the spectacle. I made the decision that if we didn’t get the animal safely contained then something worse was going to happen. I also imagined that if it decided that Antigua's sea lion hospitality wasn’t that great, then it would probably swim out to sea again it may be lost for good. The poor creature looked so thin tired. It was a 65 mile swim to Antigua and right into the waves. Imagine doing that with no way of feeding yourself.
Since I couldn’t get through to Mykl back at the beach I figured I would just call 911 to pass on the info. I have to tell you that the 911 people here are fantastic these days. What an amazing change that has taken place there. The lady there asked what was the nature of my emergency and I quickly explained that I had info about the sea lion to pass on to the officers there. She immediately patched me through to the Bolans Police Station who then patched me through to the officer in charge at Darkwood Beach. Corporal Taylor in between yelling commands told me that the sea lion had gone back into the water. I told him that the Marine World people were on their way and had asked that the animal be left alone. I told the officer that we were bringing the wire back to fence it on the beach if it came ashore again in an effort to bring some control to a situation that would get out of control once again. He agreed and told me to hurry.
We got back 20 minutes later and almost everyone had gone. The sea lion had followed a jet ski slowly going towards the next beach just around the corner. Ffreyes beach was where we went too and up on the North side just below Dennis’ Restaurant was the sea lion. As we arrived five or six jet skies were at the water’s edge almost like killer whales looking for some fresh meat. To be fair I think one of them had actually guided it to the beach. Approaching from the south side of the beach was a growing crowd almost looking like a mob, and mykl and I tried to let them know that they had to give the animal room. With the help of three or four guys we quickly erected the fence more to keep people away from the animal than anything else and in my opinion it was safer there than it had been since the waves had broken down it’s last place of captivity.
Four sea lions and four fur seals had escaped during that storm on October 16th and had been spotted over a 250 mile span in the northern Caribbean. Only one of the fur seals had been recovered and this was the third sea lion that had been found. Helicopters boats and planes had all taken part in the recovery of these precious animals. I use the word precious for a reason. These are more cash cows than sea lions and the 16 million dollar facility will be the main cruise tourism attraction on the twin island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. There are hundreds of reasons why marine mammels shouldn’t be kept in captivity and this disaster was one of the main arguments against our own Dolphin Fantasies which kept dolphins over at Runaway beach some years ago. The Caribbean gets hurricanes and this type of disaster is almost a sure bet. These sea lions were captured off Uruguay about a year ago and sent to St. Kitts back in April. They have been fed frozen north American fish since then and have no idea how to catch fish in these waters which is why the animals lost so much weight. When it left St. Kitts it weighed about 230 lbs and was still growing. We thought it weighed about 180 now. No food for four weeks.
Before Peter Noah left St. Kitts he asked me to find a place to keep the animal overnight where they could administer treatment to it. I made a few trips to jolly harbour and dozens of phone calls to try to find a suitable place. One of my friends offered his gated deck which I had a look at and thought would possibly be ok.
When the Marine world people arrived just after sunset they poured out of the taxi and rushed right past us to the enclosure. Very shortly afterwards Peter, who I introduced myself to, started getting slightly agitated calling shots left and right to his people and others. Several Antigua Fisheries officials had been on the scene since very early on and had been waiting for Peter and his crew so that they could offer help. The police had been there all the time as well trying to keep people from getting too close to the make shift enclosure. So many people had volunteered help. Dennis had given us four or five buckets which several boys had been using to get water from the sea in order to keep the sea lion moist. We didn’t know if this was the right thing to do but since it was fenced we decided we should keep it wet. Melrose had left one of his employees to help and look after the fence too. Peter and his marine world trainers didn’t seem to appreciate all the help that had been afforded and as soon as he came the helpful attitude of all around seemed to diminish. Several hours of feeding and medication passed while we tried to find a suitable place to keep the animal. Peter had dismissed the deck almost as a joke. The Fisheries officers said that they may have a room that could work and went off with Peter to check on it. An hour later the sea lion was netted and put in the back of my truck bound this time for the Japanese built fisheries plant. (the story behind that plant is a whole other story!)
Finally at minutes to 9 pm the trainers and the vet were safely looking after their animal and we were free to go. The police hadn't had a drink since the morning. We were all over it. I picked up the fence poles and wire with Melrose’s guy and dropped it off at his house and the adventure was done.
There can be no doubt that seeing a sea lion is an amazing experience, but the cost and risks to the intelligent animals associated with having them in a park are far too high for me to enjoy the glimpse. Yesterday the boat arrived to take the precious sea lion back to the zoo which will be it’s home until the next hurricane.
Some say we shouldn’t have let the zoo keepers just come for their animal like they did, but what was the alternative. The marine mammal doc that came along with them said that if the sea lion had come up on US territory then they wouldn’t have been able to do what they had done here. I hope that people here on the island can see why having a dolphin park here is such a bad idea. As I said earlier, there are so many reasons why we shouldn’t have such a park here that I don’t even have enough time to write them all down. A good start is always this site though which talks about captive vs. free marine mammals.

When they lifted the sea lion into the back of my truck i told Peter that i'd like him to know that i was one of many here on the island who campaigned against the captive dolphin program here. He tried not to show his surprise and said something strange. He said "I can assure you that I will never bring dolphins to Antigua". I dunno why I think it was strange, but the way he said it just sounded weird. It's still unsettling to me.
There were several people who had asked Peter for money for helping out and he had asked me to come to see him the next day about sorting out that kinda stuff. A part of me wanted Peter and his park to pay big time for their mistakes and I told him that they had plenty to answer to, but really all i wanted was for this animal to be taken safely out of Antigua. Riding in the front of the truck with me the night before was their vetrenarian. He told me that one of his main areas of expertise was injured sea turtle rehab. I told him about Mykl's turtle project as well as the Jumby Bay project and said that I'd like to have his contact details. When Mykl and I met them in the morning the Sea Lion was doing much better and had been eating all night. They had been pumping fluids and medication into him and he was ready to be transported back to St. Kitts. Peter wanted to preach some of his Jim Jones type marine zoo propaganda to me and asked me to sit with him for a moment while Mykl and the Doc talked turtle. Peter wrongly assumed that like most of the people he speaks with, I was ill informed. He started out by saying that he knew I had problems with the moral issue of marine mammals in captivity but that these sea lions were rescued from a cull in Uruguay. "The fishermen there kill thousands there every year and these ones escaped being killed". I immideately shot back "You mean like the dolphins rescued by dolphin parks from Taiji?" See this link. Again he was lost for words and said that Taiji had cleaned up it's act. I didn't bother go further on this one as i knew different. A good friend spent plenty of time there recently and saw the slaughters first hand. We didn't speak much more on the issue of marine mammal parks probably because he understood very well at that point that I wouldn't drink the cool aid. Just then the sea lion peeked its head up to the glass seperating us from it's holding area within the fisheries complex. He looked so much more happy than he had been the day before. I guess like most things happiness is relative. Peter said that he wanted to be fair to those who helped out and wanted to know how much I needed for all the trouble that i went to including running around with my truck. I told him i needed nothing for myself, but that i would think that EC $600 (US $230) would be a good gesture to pay the two boys who kept the sea lion wet with buckets of water, and the two guys who supplied the fence and stayed with it until 9 the night before. He was delighted to pay this meager amount. As the Doc had said earlier that if it had been a US territory they wouldn't have gotten the animal back. When he said that he should at least pay for my fuel. I told him that if he needed to feel good about this fiasco he could donate something to the Antigua Sea Turtle Project. He and the doc agreed that this was a great idea. The doc said "what about one of our 8 foot tanks..... they could use this for injured turtle rehab". Peter nearly choked and said "you want me to give them a tank!??". I chuckled while Mykl and the two men ironed the details. I hope they stick to it. She was the reason the animal got "rescued" by them in the first place.
Mykl and I got home and curiosity got the better of me. I had to find info on the thousands of sea lions that were killed each year in Uruguay. Despite an hour of intense googling I couldn't find any truth to Peter's story. I am not calling him a liar, but I just didn't find the info. What i did find was this link saying that this company could catch you one and ship it to you without any problems. They boasted that they hadn't had one get killed yet. Nowhere did it say they were rescued Sea Lions. I aslo found this link where in the "status" section they totally debunk Peter's claim.
This was the article that Mykl first was sent last week. It's a good thing that she read it because nobody else here seemed to know anything about the "seal" as they called it.
If you have read this long rambling blog I hope you will join me and the many others who will work hard together to stop captive marine mammals from being kept here. Recently I heard that a dolphin park approached the government about setting up shop once again here. This time they wanted to do it in Cades Bay. We must stop them!
The photos to this blog are coming soon.