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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Introducing two new Colours of OBLU resorts in the Maldives

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COLOURS OF OBLU, a brand by Atmosphere Hotels & Resorts, has opened two exciting new resorts in Male Atoll in the Maldives this year.

OBLU XPERIENCE Ailafushi opened in June. Translating from the Maldivian dialect of Dhivehi, ‘Aila’ means family and ‘Fushi’ means island, in essence, the Family Island. A 15-minute speedboat ride from Velana International Airport brings guests to this beautiful tropical island.

The four-star resort’s 268 villas and rooms are designed to experience nature at its best. A striking fleet of water villas shaped like dhonis are lined up along the jetty – a perfect spot for snapping some selfies. From the moment of arrival, a carefree and relaxed holiday unfolds with the generous Fushi Plan™. Dining, activities, a multi-level kids club with a pool and food corner, overwater gym, and live entertainment are all blended within the stay for a hassle-free holiday.

Sumptuous all-day dining options are available at the Element X Restaurant which serves modern Western, Central Asian, and Far Eastern cuisines. X360 Bar features a 1000 sqm infinity pool – one of the largest in the Maldives. Guests can enjoy unlimited orders of refreshing spirits, wines, and beer from the grab and go bar counter. Evenings come alive with enthralling music and party vibes at the bar’s dance floor. The Copper Pot Food Truck parked on the beach is perfect for an open-air dinner of choicest fresh seafood and meat grills that can be relished on the soft sandy beach beneath the starry sky.

Walk up to La Promenade located beside a channel that meanders across Ailafushi island. This picturesque walkway has cosy seating corners along with a wine boutique, souvenir shop, and café. There is so much to do here — lounge at the scenic overwater deck, sip a cup of coffee, and socialise with like-minded travellers. Experiential highlights also include The Dome, a futuristic 15-meter theatre and entertainment centre.

Sister resort OBLU SELECT Lobigili is an adults only property that opened in March. In the Maldivian language of Dhivehi, ‘Lobi’ means love and ‘Gili’ means island. Lobigili is, in essence, the island of love.

Blessed with verdant foliage, this five-star resort features 68 contemporary beach and water villas – all assuring gorgeous views of the turquoise-blue lagoon. With the resort’s exclusive Lobi PlanTM guests can immerse in a blissfully carefree stay. This generous plan includes specialty fine-dining, unlimited beverages, spa services, Indian Ocean excursions, a selection of non-motorised watersports as well as a fully stocked minibar replenished daily.

OBLU SELECT Lobigili continues with the brand’s tradition of exceptional fine dining, elevating the mealtime experience with playful and fun touches. At Ylang-Ylang, the All-Day Dining Restaurant, delectable world cuisine with intimate nooks for couples and a unique book corner are unmissable. The Swing Bar with itschilled out beachside vibe features chic hammocks, swings and a stunning infinity pool that is one of the largest in the Maldives. Evenings come alive with handcrafted, aromatised cocktails and hypnotic DJ and Live Band performances.

That is not all. There is Gaadiya 17 Food Truck serving grab-and-go game meat grills to be relished in a fun, open-air setting on the beach under starry skies. And an exotic ONLY BLU Underwater Restaurant, one of the largest underwater restaurants in the country, where guests can experience impeccable modern gourmet cuisine.

A standout experience is ELE | NA The Spa – designed exclusively for couples and adults – featuring locally inspired spa treatments including  Lobi Dhooni (Love Bird) Hithun Hithath (Heart To Heart) and Dhekanbalun (You & Me).

Scuba Diving from both resorts is with OBLU’s partner dive centre, TGI Maldives, one of the best-known in the country. The dive centre teaches a variety of PADI and SSI courses. The island’s house reef is perfect for relaxed dives, snorkeling and training, whilst many of North Male Atoll’s best dive sites are just a short boat ride away. In particular, the atoll is well-known for its manta ray sightings from May to October.

Discover more at www.coloursofoblu.com

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SSI releases new Explorers program for kids

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SSI has announced the release of the SSI Explorers Program, where kids aged 6-11 years old can get a taste of the many ways to explore the aquatic world around them. This exciting program makes diving for kids stress-free, guiding them in engaging underwater adventures where they can scuba dive, act like a real mermaid, and go underwater on a single breath with freediving. SSI has invested much time and energy into re-vamping this child-centered experience program.

Formerly known as Scuba Rangers, the new SSI Explorers Program is today’s most extensive aquatic experience program for kids in the dive industry. Children who have not yet reached the minimum age for scuba diving will not only gain a solid foundation in ocean conservation, but they will have the opportunity to experience four main aquatic adventures and many specialties.

Your young aquatic explorer will join Emma and Nico on exciting underwater adventures with their marine friends, Star the starfish, Shelly the sea turtle, and Spike the shark. The comprehensive children’s manual is very engaging, with colourful cartoon drawings and authentic ocean images for this young audience. Emma and Nico guide children throughout the manual’s educational content in a fun and engaging way, using Spike as their equipment expert and Shelly as the ocean environment advocate.

The SSI Explorers materials start by introducing children to the importance of protecting and preserving our oceans by becoming a Blue Oceans Explorer. After learning why our oceans are important, about the world’s five oceans, and what they can do to help protect our oceans, students earn the SSI Blue Oceans Explorer recognition rating. They can then move on to learn all there is to know about snorkel equipment and snorkelling in a confined water environment to earn their Snorkel Explorer rating.

After completing these two initial experiences, SSI Explorers can choose from one of three aquatic adventures and either become a Scuba Explorer, Mermaid Explorer, or Freediving Explorer. Better yet, they can continue on to earn all three ratings!

SSI Mermaid Explorers get to swim around like real mermaids while improving their swimming skills. SSI Freediving Explorers will go underwater and dive deeper by holding their breath longer in an encouraging, relaxed environment.  Explorers who have not met the minimum age for scuba diving can try it out within the safety of a pool or confined water and become an SSI Scuba Explorer.

The fun doesn’t stop there, however! SSI Explorers can go on even more underwater adventures to earn 22 different Specialty Explorer ratings. They can improve their explorer skills with exciting specialties like Underwater Model Explorer, Rescue Explorer, Shark Ecology Explorer, and Search & Rescue Explorer, just to name a few. Your child can earn the Specialty Explorer recognition rating by completing two Explorer specialties. When they complete four specialties, they will become Advanced Explorers, and after completing the Rescue Explorer specialty, they can become a Master Explorer. SSI Explorers will even be able to earn real C-Cards just like their parents to show off their hard-earned recognition ratings.

To look back on their explorer fun, SSI has included a logbook section toward the back of the colourfully engaging SSI Explorers manual. The Explorer Logbook is where students can record details of their underwater adventures as they work through these exciting experiences. Near the logbook, SSI has also included an area for the Explorer Instructor to place an SSI recognition sticker specific to each completed explorer activity. Children will be excited to work toward earning them all!

The SSI Explorers program is now available as a book or digitally in four languages: German, English, Spanish, and Italian, with more languages hopefully coming soon.

Training the next generation of ocean lovers and aquatic enthusiasts is very important to SSI and all SSI Training Centres and Pros. The SSI Explorers Program is an excellent way to promote ocean conservation and aquatic safety in our younger population and prepare them for future open water certification opportunities once they reach the minimum age for scuba diving.

Look for an SSI Explorers Program at an SSI Training Centre near you. To find your nearest SSI Training Centre, check out the SSI Centre Locator here.

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