Staff at an Islamorada dolphin facility protested drilling for sewer pipes on Windley Key, fearing that it could destroy an aquatic "lifeline" needed by the attraction's animals.
"All we care about is the animals. We put them above our own well-being," Theater of the Sea curator Beverly Osborne said.
"We can't afford to find out the hard way that this was a very bad idea," Osborne said. "Our veterinarian has a lot of concerns."
One staff member parked her car in the planned construction route along the Old Highway, off mile marker 84.7, to safeguard an underground culvert and channel that carries ocean water into dolphin ponds at Theater of the Sea.
Several other Theater of Sea staff members surrounded the car and refused to move on Friday as contractors set up drilling equipment yards away.
"That water is our lifeline into a land-locked facility. It's crucial," veterinary technician Melissa Jaroneski said. "If [the channel] collapses and our ponds become stagnant, or the water gets contaminated by fungus or bacteria, our animals could become ill or worse."
Monroe County Sheriff's Office patrol cars responded to a 10 a.m. call from the sewer contractor.
"We stood by to make sure it did not turn into anything more serious, or that any laws were broken," sheriff's spokeswoman Becky Herrin said.
After consultation with village of Islamorada wastewater officials, the contractors temporarily halted work.
"We asked the contractors to stop work [Friday] at Theater of the Sea so their engineer can look at the plans," Islamorada wastewater program manager Greg Tindle said. "That's supposed to happen Monday, so we'll circle back to see if they have any concerns or requests."
Primary contractor Reynolds Water Islamorada designed the Old Highway system to run six to nine feet below the Theater of the Sea culvert, Tindle said.
"Reynolds stands behind the plan and is ready to do the work so it will not negatively affect any of the animals," Tindle said, noting that the culvert that concerns the attraction managers is on the road right of way.
"This is not on their property or right next to the ponds," Tindle said.
Theater of the Sea houses eight dolphins, including a newborn calf; five sea lions; 10 sea turtles; and "hundreds of fish and reptiles," assistant curator Pam Hughes said.
The dispute centers on the culvert system, reportedly built in 1941, that carries thousands of gallons of ocean water into the marine park. Part of the channel runs along U.S. 1 between Theater of the Sea and the Pelican Cove Resort.
Islamorada's wastewater plans call for drilling that would allow sewer lines to be placed beneath the park's water system.
Osborne said Theater of the Sea managers became aware of planned work several weeks ago and asked for a detailed set of engineering plans so they could be checked by park engineering and medical consultants, along with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"They brought the plans to us yesterday, then showed up to start work today without honoring our request," Osborne said Friday.
"They keep likening this to drilling under a bridge, but this is not like that," she said. "We do not understand what the rush is when it could put our animals at risk."
She added, "We actually support the sewer system. We just want time to make sure it won't destroy our water supply."