Environment

Disney plan to develop unspoiled Bahamian island draws fire

An attorney on nearby Spanish Wells has started a change.org petition to generate opposition to Disney potentially converting uninhabited Egg Island in the Bahamas to a cruise ship destination.
An attorney on nearby Spanish Wells has started a change.org petition to generate opposition to Disney potentially converting uninhabited Egg Island in the Bahamas to a cruise ship destination.

An unspoiled, uninhabited 12-acre Bahamian out island ringed by a pristine reef and sandy beaches favored by nesting sea turtles may become something else: a cruise ship terminal for Disney.

While Disney has remained vague about plans, the arrival of a drilling rig in June that for three weeks scooped up seabed samples from about 150 feet deep off Egg Island has spurred rumors and mobilized residents. An online website and residents have drummed up opposition from as far away as California and Canada, collecting about 2,000 signatures — more than the population of the tiny neighboring island of Spanish Wells. Residents also hope to take their fight to the prime minister’s office.

“We’re in the dark and finding out more and more,” said attorney Holly Peel, who organized the petition and hopes to save the island her grandfather helped make one of the Bahamas premier fishing destinations.

Everything that the Bahamian government wants to save, Egg Island is a perfect example of that natural harmony.

Spanish Wells resident Holly Peel

“Egg Island is a community place,” she said. “Everything that the Bahamian government wants to save, Egg Island is a perfect example of that natural harmony. There’s juvenile fish being protected and conchs. The circle of life is going on and on there and it’s just jaw-droppingly amazing.”

Disney decline to comment late Tuesday. “We don’t comment on speculation,” spokeswoman Kim Prunty said in an email.

The island is owned by the Bahamian government but had been leased to the pioneering Higgs family, said Spanish Wells Deputy Chief Councilor Robert Roberts. Local families for generations have used it, erecting small beach shacks for parties and spending summer vacations on the island, said Roberts, who speculated the island’s deepwater access drew the cruise line.

When the Higgs family patriarch died, the lease returned to the government, Roberts said. It’s not clear if the family or the office of Prime Minister Perry Christie has been negotiating with Disney.

Little information has been provided to locals, other than confirmation that the government issued a temporary license for exploratory work to Disney contractor. Roberts said he met with Chris Lowe, Disney’s director of global development and public affairs, but Roberts said the executive wanted to wait for sampling results before providing more information. Disney declined to make Lowe available for an interview.

They have a layout in mind on the island, but they don’t know if they have a plan for where to put berthing or how much dredging to do.

Spanish Wells District Deputy Councilor Robert Roberts

“We know it’s going to be a cruise ship terminal port. He says they just do not know exactly how they’re going to go about it until they have the core reports,” Roberts said. “They have a layout in mind on the island, but they don’t know if they have a plan for where to put berthing or how much dredging to do.”

If Egg Island becomes a stop on the Disney itinerary, it would become the sixth island in the Bahamas leased or owned by cruise ship companies and the second one near Eleuthera. At the south tip, Princess Cruise Lines’ Princess Cays provides cruisers with an exclusive 40-acre playground featuring a “complimentary beach barbecue,” half-mile sand beach and craft market. Disney also already runs its own private island off Great Abaco, Castaway Cay, where it has launched a coral restoration program to help ailing reefs battered by pollution and increasingly at risk from climate change.

At Egg Island, residents say the very damage Disney is trying to correct at Castaway Cay could worsen with 3,000 to 5,000 passengers visiting the island twice a week. Dredging will surely damage a reef so close to shore “you can almost spit at the reef off the beach,” Roberts said, and pollution could cause healthy reefs to decline.

“What do you do about 5,000 people pooping in your toilets?” Roberts asked. “There’s lots of environmental concerns.”

Located at the north end of Eleuthera, tiny Egg Island sits just west of Spanish Wells, a community of just 1,600, with Royal Island and Russell Island in between. Egg Island is the only remaining island in the district not privately owned or under a long-term lease, “kind of like the last sanctuary,” Roberts said.

Except for a small lighthouse at the turn of the 20th century, it has remained uninhabited, instead providing a sanctuary to nesting turtles and other wildlife. An interior pond is inhabited by juvenile fish and conchs.

Surveyors first appeared on the island about two years ago, Roberts said, but locals paid little attention.

We have seen this happen on numerous occasions, so of course you become a little complacent.

Spanish Wells District Deputy Councilor Robert Roberts

“We have seen this happen on numerous occasions,” he said, “so of course you become a little complacent.”

But when the drill and rigging arrived, and then sat on the public dock for weeks while officials resolved customs issues, rumors started flying. A local charter captain photographed the rig in port and later erected over the turquoise Bahamian waters. Peel, whose father grew up in Spanish Wells, attended the University of Miami and returned to Spanish Wells in 2007 after studying law in London, tracked down the Orlando engineering company operating the rig and uncovered a temporary business license. With so little information available, Peel said she started a Facebook page and organized a change.org petition to generate interest. In just five days, the petition collected more than 1,800 online signatures.

Residents are angry that so little information has been shared, Roberts said. The district council has sent a letter to Christie’s office and is also hoping to arrange a meeting with Disney officials, he said.

“It’s kind of like a slap in the face,” he said. “If we, being the community, can get through this and there’s no development, I can tell you we will try our best to secure Egg Island for the district of Spanish Wells for future generations so there’s no development.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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