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Head of Cayman Islands Department of Environment Urges Extreme Caution before Moving Forward with Controversial Cruise Berthing Plan

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Since its release in early June, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been at the centre of the heated debate over economic and environmental costs associated with the proposed port in George Town Harbor. Director of the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie, who also headed the Environmental Assessment Board (EAB) that coordinated the impact study, is urging extreme caution before moving ahead with the project and pleading with decision makers and the public to take a closer look at what’s at stake.

The EIS projects that 15 acres of protected coral reefs will be destroyed by construction and dredging, and another 15 acres are at risk. Lost will be the exceptional underwater visibility that Cayman is world-renowned for. George Town Harbour is one of the few working ports in the Caribbean, if not the only one, with crystal clear water and vibrant coral reefs within easy access of the cruise ships’ anchorage.

The reefs, which include Soto’s Reef, Eden Rock and the Wreck of the Balboa, are so unique because it is rare to find such well developed, high relief reefs so close to, and easily accessible from shore. These reefs have also been protected under the Marine Parks system for over 25 years so fish life is abundant and diverse. These are two of the main factors which contribute to a bustling watersports scene in the harbor. Scuba diving, snorkeling, submarine trips, glass bottom boat excursions are offered primarily for cruise ship passengers.

Cayman

Schoolchildren enjoying an underwater ride aboard the Atlantis Submarine in George Town Harbour.

“If the additional 15 acres of reefs disappear, or are no longer useable because they are dead or water clarity is so poor, it will be extremely difficult to find other similar sites which could easily absorb the displaced businesses and visitors, particularly given the cruise ships’ limited time in port,” says Ebanks-Petrie. “Possible alternative options for snorkeling, like Stingray City, are already over-subscribed and under tremendous stress as a result.”

The loss of these reefs has huge implications for the Cayman Islands on an international level. The Department of Environment has heard from international agencies and individuals during the public consultation process, and Gina Ebanks-Petrie says the vast majority urged the country not to proceed with the project because of the permanent and irreversible damage. For example, the President and CEO of PADI Worldwide “implores the Cayman Islands Government to cease plans to initiate this project and seek alternative solutions to mitigate the situation and not destroy the priceless natural underwater assets belonging to Grand Cayman Island”.

“In addition to the obvious impact of the loss of these world-famous dive sites on our dive tourism product, the biggest impact will likely be on our reputation as a jurisdiction with a long history of valuing and prioritizing the protection of its marine environment,” she said.

“Coral reefs all over the world are under serious threat on various fronts: coastal development, over-fishing, sedimentation, climate change, etc. Marine scientists are agreed that we need to take all possible steps to protect remaining reefs at the same time as taking corrective action to address the threats, both locally and globally,” added the DOE director.

Cayman’s watersports operators and local environmentalists, alarmed by the projected damage to the reefs and dive sites have organized under the banner of SaveCayman.org to fight the project and raise awareness in the community.  Dock supporters point to mitigation options outlined in the EIS report, but Ebanks-Petrie cautions against misinterpreting the report.

Cayman

Corals growing on the historic Wreck of the Balboa in George Town harbour

“The pro-port side seems to take comfort from these mitigation options, but what is being missed, or glossed over, is that the environmental study also assesses the effect of those measures, and the consultants judge that they will have little or no effect on reducing the severity of the impacts,” she said. “The public and decision makers need to remember that “mitigation” of an impact does not equal complete removal of the impact, and they should focus on the severity of the predicted residual impact i.e. those impacts which remain even after the use of mitigation measures.”

“For example, the consultants score the impact of dredging on water quality in George Town Harbour (GTH) as a Significant negative impact (-D) and this remains a Significant Negative impact (-D) after the application of the recommended mitigation measure – the installation of silt curtains,” she explains. The same applies to the possible relocation of the historic Wreck of the Balboa.

Consultants classify the destruction of coral reef during dredging in the highest tier of negative impacts – a Major negative impact (-E). Following implementation of the recommended mitigation measure – the coral relocation programme – it is still classified as a Significant Negative Impact (-D).

“Even with these proposed mitigation measures, that come with a significant price tag, the resulting situation is still extremely dire, and this seems to be lost in the sound bites being heard in the news,” said Ebanks-Petrie.

Cayman already has a competitive cruise tourism product as illustrated by the industry’s own report (BREA 2012) which indicates that 90% of cruise visitors to Grand Cayman disembark while in port, and the Department of Tourism’s statistics on cruise arrivals indicate that at the end of 2015 numbers of cruise visitors will reach 1.7 million. Beyond this, numbers are set to increase, all without the construction of berthing facilities.

Cayman

George Town Harbour is a favorite site for many watersports operators who offer excursions for cruise ship passengers.

“The Department of Environment fully acknowledges the contribution that cruise tourism makes to the economy, and the need to upgrade and improve the arrival and departure experience of cruise visitors. However, after careful consideration of the environmental losses and the risk to the overall tourism product associated with berthing facilities, our view is that a scheme of appropriate landside enhancements would offer the best solution.”

Ebanks-Petrie says the Environmental Statement has attempted to place a dollar value on the economic losses associated with the destruction of the George Town Harbour reefs and the Statement recommends that these preliminary estimates are appropriately incorporated into the updated Business Case.

“The Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Assessment Board’s review of it are stunningly clear and shows that the government should not approve the plan as described,” says Dr. Ellen Prager, marine scientist and author who has been outspoken against the project. “The reefs and the wreck lost to dredging and sedimentation associated with dredging cannot be relocated or transplanted, and it is unclear what other unintended consequences to other nearshore habitats and environments will occur.”

Ebanks-Petrie says moving forward, given the projected cost of the project, it is critical that the predicted economic benefits of the berthing facility are based on real data and factual information and that the economic business case does not rely solely on assumptions, speculation and the opinions of those persons directly involved in the cruise tourism industry.

“From where I sit, the economic business case does not appear to have been held to the same standard of actual data collection and robust analysis and scrutiny as the environmental impact assessment; I see this as a significant problem for decision-makers,” said the head of the Department of Environment.

“It is our mission to inform and educate the public about Cayman’s fragile environment and to try to ensure that decisions made today, which will impact future generations, are based on accurate facts,” says Keith Sahm who is spearheading Save Cayman. “Once the decision is made, Cayman will have to deal with the consequences.”

About Save Cayman

Save Cayman (www.savecayman.org) is a grassroots organization of individuals who share a mission to protect the underwater environment of the Cayman Islands, while promoting sustainable tourism for future generations. It was formed by concerned individuals responding to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that projected the destruction of coral reefs in advance of the government-proposed cruise berthing facility in George Town harbour.

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Gear News

Jeff chats to… Sean Webb, Director of O’Three, about diving in the UK and the O’Three brand

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In this exclusive Zoom interview, Jeff Goodman, Scubaverse Editor-at-Large, chats to Sean Webb, Director of O’Three, the well-known UK-based manufacturer of custom drysuits and wetsuits.

After a bath time quarrel with his sister, Sean’s Mum taught him a lesson.

She held his head underwater for what she thought was long enough for that lesson to sink in (We are talking the mid 60’s here), but the lesson learned wasn’t the one that was intended. It was then that Sean realized he was comfortable, in or under the water. He was six.

The coasts of Devon and Dorset became his playground. 17 years later, with a trip around the world and some incredible diving under his belt, Sean Webb founded O’Three.

Now in its 32nd  year, O’Three has evolved from a business with roots that are unashamedly rooted in UK diving, to a niche brand being enjoyed all over the world by discerning recreational, technical and commercial divers alike.

Find out more at www.othree.co.uk


Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the new Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.

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Cool Drysuit Dives

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In the mood for a snowy holiday when you can get back into the water? Why not get back to your favourite underwater sport instead of hitting the slopes like everyone else? Check these incredible dive sites and explore a new underwater world in your drysuit!

Rummu Quarry, Estonia

The quirkiest and spookiest ice diving site in Europe is only 45 minutes driving from the capital of Estonia, Tallinn. Rummu Quarry used to be a limestone mining site and a prison. When the excavation labour ceased in the 1990s, pumps that kept the quarry dry were shut down. Soon water started flooding the entire site. After the prison closed in 2012, Rummu became an adventure centre where you can practice different outdoor sports including diving in the crystal-clear waters of the quarry and explore the sunken ruins of the prison. Diving in Rummu Quarry is also available in the winter, making it a one-of-a-kind ice diving spot. Will you dare to do it?

Who to Dive With:

Adventurecenter Rummu

PADI 5 Star Center

Sireli Tanav 11, Harju Maakond, Rummu Quarry, Estonia 76102

+372 588 733 78

info@barrakuuda.ee

White Sea, Russia

Image by Viktor Lyagushkin

If diving in frozen lakes, which have almost no aquatic life, is not exciting enough for you, Russia is the place to go to practice marine ice diving. At the level of the Arctic Circle, the White Sea is the only sea that freezes in winter as all other places are warmed up by the Gulf Stream. Leaving from the shores of the region of Karelia, between St Petersburg and the border of Finland, you can go ice diving from December to April. In addition to impressive ice formations, you can also enjoy on the rocky sea-bed a surprise abundant marine fauna with soft coral, starfish, crabs, shrimps, sea urchins and sea anemones. An important point to remember, salt-water freezes at -1.8°C!

Who to Dive With:

Arctic Circle

PADI Dive Center

Nilmaguba, Loukhski Region, Republic of Karelia, Russia

(7) 495 105 7799

sever@dive.ru

Switzerland

You won’t find salty seas in Switzerland, but alpine lakes and rivers make for unique and mystical scuba diving.

Lake Geneva has a variety of dives to discover. Wall dives and freshwater scenery can be perused beneath the surface. There is even a wreck dive – a stellar spot for more advanced divers to take the plunge.

Another is Lake Zurich, where you can head to excellent scuba spots right from the shore. The lake is serene, with lofty mountains cascading upward from the lakeshore. Glacially fed, the lake has sublime visibility.

River divers will be blown away by the Verzasca, an impossibly clear river found just south of the Alps near the border of Italy.

Who to Dive with at Lake Geneva:

Scuba-Shop Villeneuve

PADI 5 Star Center and Instructor Development Center

Route D’Arvel 106, Villeneuve, Switzerland 1844

+41 21 9601535

phil@scubashop.ch

Austria

Salzburg Lake Image by Manfred Steidl

Landlocked Austria wouldn’t seem a good place for diving, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The Salzkammergut region of Austria has almost 170 lakes. A favourite is lake Attersee, where there are dive sites galore to check out, in this, the largest of the area’s lakes. Nazi treasures were once held in Wolfgangsee, and though you can’t take them with you, you can still see them on a dive.

During a trip here you can swim in the cold, gin clear water, checking out park benches, trees, and trails, all on a carpet of green grass. It’s unreal!

Who to Dive with at Salzburg Lakes:

Joe’s Wassersportcenter

PADI 5 Star Center

Innsbrucker Bundesstrasse 53, Salzburg, Austria 5020

+43 662 890259

info@wassersportcenter.at

Inspired to start your own ice diving adventure? Find out more about the PADI Ice Diver specialty and head to PADI Travel to look for amazing destinations.

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Competitions

Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life.  The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.

£1475 per person based on double occupancy.  Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available.  Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp.  Flights and transfers are included.  See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.

This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

Call 020 3515 9955 or email john@thescubaplace.co.uk

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

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