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Coffee Break Chat: Erica Downer, Fighting Against Captive Dolphins in Discovery Bay

by Stephanie Koathes Jun 12, 2019

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“You and I can’t save the world, but this is my backyard, and I can keep it clean.”

Aerial shot of Discovery Bay in St Ann Jamaica, site of a controversial Dolphin Cove attraction.

Photo credit: Edward Downer

Swimming with the dolphins. This is an activity that many people have on their bucket list, tourists and locals alike. But what is the real cost of fulfilling that dream?

Erica Downer is fighting to save Discovery Bay in St Ann, from a dolphinarium, a place where people can go swimming with dolphins and watch them do tricks. Captive dolphin attractions have a very dark side, for the dolphins and in this case, for the environment of Discovery Bay.

Erica runs the Facebook group Save Discovery Bay and has penned several articles in the Jamaica Gleaner and Observer. She spent time at Yello sharing why this issue is so important, why dolphins shouldn’t be in captivity in the Bay , and why the issue is being fought in court.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1944. My parents were English; they met here, married here, made a business here and died here. They never went back anywhere else, and neither have I. This is my country.

How did you become so involved with Discovery Bay?

Because in 1985 I bought possibly the smallest house along the strip. I’ve been going to Discovery Bay since I was 14 years old, so that’s 60 years. My father was a founding member of the Jamaica historical society, and he knew every nook and cranny of Jamaica, and he took us everywhere.

When did you start to become passionate about the area of Discovery Bay?

I’ve always been interested in nature and loved things like biology and geography and fascinated by the environment and how things exist in it. I didn’t study it, just informally. It’s an interest that’s just grown over the years.

The Bay was made a fish sanctuary in 2009. This was formalised in 2012 with the special fisheries conservation area with Alloa (Discovery Bay Fisherman’s Association) having day-to-day supervision over it. Since it was declared a fish sanctuary, I’ve seen the fish come back, I’ve seen the Bay get healthier and healthier. Fifty years ago, I used to see things in the Bay that [eventually] disappeared. Now I’m seeing them again, little sea creatures that are a measure of the health of the ecology of the Bay and they’re coming back. It’s an area that is unique. Where else in Jamaica have you got a bay that’s nearly a mile across, protected from the open sea, terribly calm and sheltered, and with the variety of sea life? The beauty that the whole Bay has, there’s nowhere else.

Discovery Bay has had a marine lab there for 65 years, and it is the most studied bay in the world. Everybody who comes here writes papers.  There are more papers written on Discovery Bay, there’s more research done, there’s more monitoring of the reef than pretty much anywhere else. It’s a very valuable entity, and it deserves to be preserved.

Aerial view of the marine lab at Discovery Bay, St Ann.

The Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory, photo credit: UWI Mona

What does Discovery Bay stand to lose with the dolphinarium?

I guess I have to talk about the pros.

Pros: It will employ a few people, not a lot.  There will be some employment for locals in terms of bartending, waitressing, etc. The cruise ships still want dolphinaria, and a lot of people have swimming with the dolphins on their bucket list.

A negative for the Bay is ultimately going to be the loss of the fishermen’s livelihood. The increased waste from the dolphins will fertilise the water and grow algae. That’s about 40lbs [of waste] per day with the four dolphins they [currently] have, they’re allowed eight so it could go up to 80lbs a day. And 40lbs of waste is a lot any way you look at it.

When the algae grows on the seagrass, it can’t photosynthesise, so it dies. When it grows on the coral, it can’t feed, so it dies. And this destroys the fish nurseries, so there’s going to be fewer and fewer fish going out into the open sea where the fishermen can catch them. I’ve seen reports from five marine biologists which we’ve presented to court [talking about] the degradation of the Bay. One of the reports says that we might even get ‘green blooms’ and our turquoise waters could turn green. Already the water isn’t as clear as it was though I don’t have scientific evidence to prove this.

What’s now happening, because the dolphins are penned in there, wild dolphins are coming in and staying next to the pens. So the fishermen are even more worried because the wild dolphins are going to be eating the fish.

Photo of protest sign against dolphin attraction in Discovery Bay

Credit: Save Discovery Bay Facebook group.

What made you decide to take such action against the dolphinarium?

I didn’t know it was happening. Out of the 17 owners along the strip, I would say that ten didn’t know. It wasn’t until they made several calls to find out that they realised the plan was to bring them there. The local people had a street demonstration in May 2018, which was televised and reported in the media, and I didn’t see the report, so I was none the wiser and neither were the others. I was away because my husband is Scottish and I go with him to Scotland three months of the year, and when I came back, I didn’t hear anything. It [the dolphinarium] was approved in October, and I heard the first week in November.

Around this time, I started the Save Discovery Bay Facebook page. Somebody sent me a petition, it already had 4000 signatures. The petition was from the Discovery Bay Community Development Committee (CDC). I joined it and put it on the Facebook page and started promoting it, and it now has nearly 23,000 signatures. We did the 15,000 that the government requires in 36 days instead of 40, and the CDC presented it to the prime minister, but there was no response.

I felt so strongly about the matter that I really didn’t think I had a choice. I don’t want the dolphins there; I don’t want to see the Bay degrade.

Dolphins are such complex social creatures. They don’t seem to do well in captivity.

They are. We can’t understand their language, it follows the patterns of human speech, but there’s not enough information for us to begin to decipher it. They all have a name; they call each other by name. Richard ‘Ric’ O’Barry founded the Dolphin Project, and it’s probably one of the biggest organisations opposed to dolphinaria in the world today. He was the trainer for Flipper, the TV show that came out 1961. Flipper was actually played by five dolphins, and he was the trainer for all five. One of them died in his arms, committed suicide, stopped breathing and wouldn’t start again and he stopped being a trainer, and he’s done advocacy ever since.

In your opinion, do the negatives out way the positives?

Absolutely. Discovery Bay is unique. I didn’t have very strong feelings about the dolphins themselves. I’ve seen a lot of wild dolphins at sea, and it’s fun. I don’t think that they belong in captivity and I think that in the time that I’ve had this [Facebook] group I’ve learnt so much. From being indifferent, I now feel just as strongly that dolphins shouldn’t be in captivity as I do about the ecology of the Bay. And I feel that they’re interconnected because you’ve got, all over the world, hundreds of species that are under threat from extinction. If you have an unhealthy ocean, you have an unhealthy world. The plastic pollution, the chemicals we’re pumping into it, the accumulated debris over the centuries…

An unmanned submarine was sent to the deepest depths that have ever been explored and guess what they found there? Plastic and a trailer load of white kitchen goods. We are destroying where we live. We have to take it seriously.

You and I can’t save the world, but this is my backyard, and I can keep it clean.

Street demonstration against Dolphin Cove in Discovery Bay.

Credit: Save Discovery Bay Facebook group.

What has the feedback been like to the movement against the dolphinarium in Discovery Bay?

Generally very supportive and in favour of what we have been doing. We get the occasional comment, “how can four dolphins affect the Bay like that?” and I get it. I just have to keep trying to explain what the fertilisation of the water does, how it causes algae to grow, and it kills good algae. The beach is eroding because the coral is not there anymore, but it will come back if given a chance.

What are your hopes with the action that’s being undertaken?

I’m hoping that we will get leave to apply for the judicial review. I’m hoping the review will agree with us and that the court will grant a permanent injunction against the dolphinarium and the dolphins will be removed.

Do you think if that happens that will have an impact on other potential attractions?

I hope so. There are so many different laws that impact this situation and none of them have teeth.

Dolphins are the number three tourist attraction in Jamaica. We don’t need the dolphins, we have culture. We’re famous for so many things, we’re famous for our beauty, and we’re messing it up.

If you’re interested in learning more about the argument against the dolphin attraction at Discovery Bay, check out the Save Discovery Bay group on Facebook.