Farewell (for now) to Bayworld oceanarium

BAYWORLD’S oceanarium is set to close at the end of this month to prepare for the de-commissioning of the 43-year-old dolphin pool and the transfer of 24 penguins and nine seals to Pretoria Zoo. It’s all part of “operation stop the bleed” in which Port Elizabeth’s much loved museum and oceanarium complex has had to make some tough decisions in order to deliver, hopefully, long-term bounty.

While the museum and snake park will remain open to the public, the aim is that the money saved in closing the oceanarium – like for instance the R30000 a month needed to run the seawater intake pump and other life support systems – can be used to run the complex sustainably.

And once operations are running on an even keel, the multi-party task team established for the purpose will be focusing its attention on finding a sustainable revenue stream or funding source that will allow for the establishment of a new world-class oceanarium to rise from the ashes of the old.

That’s the message from Bayworld director Sylvia van Zyl, who spoke exclusively to The Herald yesterday about the impending moves.

The flotilla of African penguins, seven Cape fur seals and two Sub-Antarctic fur seals will be transferred up to Pretoria by aeroplane,  with SA Cargo having agreed to sponsor the cost.

The remaining transfer costs plus the cost of shutting down the oceanarium will be covered by a R1.5m contribution due to be made next month by the provincial department of economic development and environmental affairs.

Bayworld will be keeping behind 12 penguins which will be housed in a new enclosure that must still be planned and positioned.

Van Zyl and her oceanarium team have been talking to other institutions about letting them have the sharks and other fish and turtle species. If this kind of a move happens it will be done under the “principle of reciprocity” in which they or other individual animals or similar species will be returned to Bayworld when there is space for them to be taken back.

“This is the best scenario for us, as these species do have research value, as they have been in the oceanarium a long time. But if no suitable new home can be found for them, they will be released back into the sea.”

The residents of the two large aquariums including the two ragged-tooth sharks are not fed on live fish but experts have advised that this should not have impaired their foraging instincts and they will be able to survive if released in this way.

With the dusky kob in particular Bayworld has been talking to aquaculture operations because of the increasing popularity of this species in breeding programmes.

A selection of fish will, once again, be kept behind at Bayworld. They will be housed in five smaller mobile tanks installed either in the main museum marine hall under the whale skeleton or in the entrance of the existing oceanarium.

The old dolphin, seal and penguins pools will be drained once the animals have been re-located, and they and the surrounding public area will be boarded off from the end of the   month to allow this work to start.

It is the end of an era, but Van Zyl said it is simply a strategic and business decision that had to be taken.

“Our infrastructure has served way beyond its usable tenure and it is impossible to continue to operate in a viable manner.

Besides the crippling electricity bill for the life support systems of the pool and aquarium, and the recent malfunction of the seawater-intake system, this infrastructure will also have to be refurbished, she said.  The water has been inhibited since last week because of damage to the in-take pipe and the super-low tide which co-incided with the giant moon.

Just what is going to be built on the old oceanarium site is a decision that must be taken by the multi-party task team. The team comprises representatives from the provincial environment, arts and culture and education departments as well as the MBDA, the EC Parks and Tourism Agency, the Coega Development Corporation (who have featured as implementing agents for the development of some Bayworld infrastructure) and the Bayworld board.

A representative from Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality is due to join the team after the up-coming local government election and a Friends of Bayworld representative is also due to join later this year.

“It is a decision that the team must take jointly with a clear vision that serves the city and the region,” Van Zyl stressed.

“But personally, it is my hope that the wherewithal will be found to create a new oceanarium for PE.”

This “wherewithal” has long been a sticking point. Bayworld gets an annual grant of R865000 from the provincial arts and culture department, a figure which has remained the same for three years despite inflation. The rest of the money needed to run the complex and maintain the animal collections comes from entrance fees paid by the public and a few other income-generating sources.

So Bayworld itself does not have the money needed for a big new oceanarium.

But a number of possibilities are being considered by the task team including a public-private partnership in which a separate entity would take over the commercial side of Bayworld, and this would be serviced by the scientific and education sections of the museum.  Bayworld’s environmental education and research programmes have continued to grow year on year despite the problems at the complex.

If the money is found to build a new oceanarium to be proud of, the existing plan by top architect Tim Hewitt-Coleman will be taken into consideration as well as innovations that Van Zyl and her team saw for themselves earlier this year at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, where Bayworld’s old favourites Domino and Dumisa the bottlenose dolphins now live.

Domino has sired potential offspring and, in terms of the agreement with Ocean park, every second calf belongs to Bayworld. Dumisa is now also now sexually mature and the same will apply to whatever calves she has in the future.

Bringing any of these offspring back will depend on there being a dolphin facility built here that meets international standards , she said.


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