Coral World Coming Back from Hurricane Damage

Turtles have a temporary home in what was the shark pool at Coral World. (Submitted photo)
Turtles have a temporary home in what was the shark pool at Coral World. (Submitted photo)

There really was nothing “environmentally friendly” about the heavy blow Nature dealt to St. Thomas’ premiere eco-tourism attraction last September.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria were decidedly hostile to Coral World Marine Park, causing an estimated $2 million in physical damage, forcing it to release much of its marine life and resulting in its closure for months.

But if you’re a leader in the eco-tourism movement, you have to take the bad with the good – and for Coral World’s curator Lee Kellar, that includes tropical cyclones.

“These are part of our existence here in the Caribbean,” he said in an interview last week. “We learn from them all and we get better.”

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Coral World began offering very limited service for cruise ship tours in November but didn’t reopen to the general public until the end of January. It still continues to rebuild and revamp some of its exhibits.

To give an idea of the progress it has made, Kellar shared a bit of its hurricane experience.

“Coral World – like many others – got hit really, really hard,” he said. “We lost our Marine Garden building … we lost our bird aviary … we lost the roof on the Blue Water terrace,” the open air space that has hosted countless community events over the years.

Access to Coral World along the Coki Point road remained a challenge for months after the storms. (Submitted photo)
Access to Coral World along the Coki Point road remained a challenge for months after the storms. (Submitted photo)

Also lost: a lot of solar panels, trees including landmark coconut palms, some hurricane shutters, bushes and other landscaping.

More importantly though, “All of our animals and people made it through the storms OK,” Kellar said. “We were truly blessed … it could have been so much worse.”

Also on the plus side, the park’s centerpiece, its underwater observatory, suffered some damage but “remarkably” survived.

So did the relatively new Dolphin Education Center.

“It was built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes,” Kellar said.

It contains two apartments, one for Kellar and his family and one that serves as a dorm for four interns who rotate in and out of the program each semester. The center opened in the spring of 2017, so the fall storms were a “trial by fire” that proved the building’s soundness.

In fact, it served as a shelter for some on the park’s animals and a lot of its staff.

A dozen people sheltered in the center during Irma. Some stayed and more moved in after that hurricane because their homes were badly damaged.

“When Maria hit, (two weeks later) we had 24 people living in that building,” Kellar said.

There were also assorted animals, including five sea lions and 15 lorikeets that had been moved from the aviary to the safer area.

“We sort of felt like we were living in Noah’s Ark,” he said.

The human guests soon evolved into a mini-community. Everyone had an assigned task, be it cooking, laundry or other service. People stayed until their homes were repaired or they could find new homes.

“I think it was Dec.31 when the last people left,” Kellar said.

In the wake of the storms, Coral World released more than 200 marine animals to the waters around the park, including lobsters, tarpin and many other fish. Some, like the sting rays, were released before Irma hit. Others, most notably the sharks, were released after because of damage to the park.

“It was definitely better for them to be out in the ocean,” Kellar said. “Releasing sharks is something we do on a regular basis,” he added.

The park promotes efforts to rehabilitate the shark’s image, introducing visitors to young sharks in a neutral setting. Once the animals grow to about four feet, they are tagged and released.

It’s one of many environmental and preservation programs Coral World encourages. It has partnered with national and local ecology groups including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Nature Conservancy, Fish and Wildlife, and the West Indian Marine Animal Research Conservation Service. It has contributed to various research projects, coral monitoring, beach clean-ups and other community efforts. Additionally, it has frequently helped injured wildlife brought to the park, housing, healing and then releasing everything from sea birds to turtles.

The park has already replaced its sting rays and some of the other animals, though not its sharks. Right now, turtles are being housed in the shark pool.

There is still a lot of reconstruction to do too.

Initial work at the park was slow in part because access to it was very difficult. The Coki Point Road (leading past Coki Beach and on to Coral World) was closed to the public for months.

“It was pretty dicey there for a while,” Kellar said. Coral World had to hire people to lift downed power lines from the road and allow trucks to make deliveries of diesel needed to run generators.

“It took them a little while to get out there” to cut poles and clear the road of debris, he said, adding the road has been officially open only since about mid-December.

The government and the cruise industry were instrumental in getting another popular St. Thomas destination, Magens Bay Beach, back in operation. But Kellar said Coral World has not received any financial assistance. He’s just happy with the moral support and the tourists that cruise lines are bringing to the park. It’s uplifting to see people enjoying the animals and enjoying themselves.

“It’s been a healing process, not just economically, but emotionally,” he said. “We thought is was important to reopen and we’re happy we did.”

For now, the park is open only on days cruise ships are in port. But it has lowered its fees in an attempt to lure more local traffic. Admission for visitors is $10 for adults, $6 for children. With local ID, those rates drop to $6 for adults and $4 for children.

More information, including rates for special programs such as SNUBA dives and the “Comeback” tour, are online at www.coralworldvi.com or by calling 340-775-1555.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, Coral World’s recovery efforts includes a Dolphin Encounter.
    It’s bad enough that they continue to exploit the 5 remaining Sea Lions

    I was unaware that the ACE permit had gone through. It’s certainly an injustice to these all these intelligent marine mammals trapped forever in cruel captivity.

    Dolphin hunts, their slaughter and captive selections are ongoing in Taiji, Japan, right now!

    This is what St. Thomas, U.S., Virgin Islands very own Coral World is supporting. They plan on opening the Dolphin Encounter in Water Bay where Magraritaville is located.

    This bay already regularly tests positive for high levels of enterococi bacteria and regularly deemed unsafe for swimming, yet this is where these captive dolphins will live, perform on demand, for the sake of greed and the entertainment of the unenlightened and ignorant!

    A friend said, “Once they get hit with a multi million dollar lawsuit by a guest with a rare infection allegedly caused by transmission from polluted water, that might get their attention.”

    “Human evolution seems to be taking a downward spiral with a domino effect of the impossibility of animals to survive and thrive on this planet which we share.”

    DONT BUY A TICKET to any place that supports these heinous activities. Encourage ALL your family members and friends not to do so either. When the demand stops, so will these atrocities.
    BOYCOTT CORAL WORLD!

    “The Humane Society International and the World Society for the Protection of Animals have stated that they believe that “the entire captive experience for marine mammals is so sterile and contrary to even the most basic elements of compassion and humanity that it should be rejected outright.”

    Alana Mawson
    St. Thomas, VI

  2. Alana, before you go after Coral World… go after people who cockfight, go after people who run horses around the track, or people who keep chickens in a cage or on the street, and go after dog and cat owners. How many pets have you are your family had in your life time? Does your dog or cat do tricks for your amusement?

    I support Coral World in rehabilitation of animals, homes for animals, education of marine life and making them available to people who would not otherwise experience these animals.

  3. They’re not rehabilitating these Sea Lions and Dolphins are they?
    They are keeping these self aware, sentient, beautiful creatures in dismal, endlessly boring captivity in a small pen for the rest of their lives to make a profit, at their expense.

    No. My dog doesn’t do tricks for my amusement nor did I go out and round up packs of dogs so that I can impale or bash in their heads so that I can have my pick of their litters.

    Dolphins and Sea Lions shouldn’t be slaughtered for the pick of their pods and forced into a lifetime of captivity for your entertainment, either!

    Until the spectator demand ends, the SLAUGHTER, HUNTING and CULLING for new captives shall continue.

    Would you attend a dog fight or a cock fight for entertainment?

    Do you care that these dolphins will spend the rest of their lives in regularly infested enterococi bacteria laden waters?

    Will you spend your money to entertain yourself and children at their expense?
    Should children be taught that captivity is fun as long as you get your expensive hour worth of entertainment?

    Do you agree they should be bred for a life of servitude in captivity for the sake of ignorance and greed?

    “The Humane Society International and the World Society for the Protection of Animals have stated that they believe that “the entire captive experience for marine mammals is so sterile and contrary to even the most basic elements of compassion and humanity that it should be rejected outright.”

    That’s what you and Coral World are defending and promoting.
    Very sad and very disgusting.

  4. In the sea where they belong, dolphin families swim together for hundreds of miles a day. They hunt and play and explore their world. In a prison like Coral World, they’re separated forever from their kin to languish, sicken and die young. Because dolphins utter high-pitched happy sounds and their mouths appear to be smiling, people think they’re happy as they perform silly party tricks. They are NOT happy or smiling. They just have no way to express their suffering.

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