Preservation groups, activists raise concerns about Batam property with captive dolphins

Audrey Tan and Feng Zengkun The Straits Times AsiaOne 3 May 15;

Wildlife preservation groups and animal activists are dismayed at news that a Batam property developer wants to build homes around a lagoon filled with captive dolphins.

Funtasy Island, which is being marketed in Singapore, promises villas built over the water. Its advertisements show residents living close to leaping dolphins.

The plan is for 64 villas to be built on the circumference of an 8.7ha dolphin lagoon, roughly the size of 13 football fields.

Funtasy Island Development, the Singapore firm set up to market the project for the Indonesian developer, told The Sunday Times that the number of dolphins has not been finalised, but people who went to the project's showroom here last month were told there would be 35.

Funtasy Island director Michael Yong said no wild dolphins would be caught for the lagoon. Instead, it will have dolphins "rescued or saved" from dolphinariums, as well as injured dolphins caught by fishermen.

"Some of the dolphins are already in these facilities," he told The Sunday Times. These are dolphins confiscated by the authorities, as they were "not treated well" at the facilities. Moving them to the Funtasy Island lagoon would be "an upgrade of life for the dolphins", he said.

But experts and wildlife groups are not convinced, and warn of safety and health issues for both humans and animals if the project goes ahead.

A spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore said the portrayal of dolphins as ever-friendly smiling creatures can be misleading. Dolphin attacks on humans are not unheard of, he said.

In 2012, a dolphin at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, bit an eight-year- old girl as she was feeding it.

Captive dolphins have to be protected from a range of risks, said Dr Elizabeth Taylor, head of the Marine Mammal Research Laboratory at the National University of Singapore's Tropical Marine Science Institute, which has a lab on St John's Island.

These include plastic bags that are blown into the lagoon, which the dolphins might swallow, or inappropriate food being offered to them.

Noting that the project is coming up off Batam, Ms Femke den Haas, from wildlife protection group Jakarta Animal Aid Network, a non-government organisation against animals in captivity, said: "It shows how little Indonesia cares about its marine mammals, continuously allowing dolphins to be exploited for commercial reasons."

Mr Pramudya Harzani, country coordinator for Indonesia from the Dolphin Project, an international campaign against dolphins in captivity, said there are more than 90 dolphins in the five dolphinariums and six travelling circuses in Indonesia.

"These facilities claim the captive dolphins are used for research, but they are used more for entertainment and tourism," he said. "They are kept in small tanks and in pools with a lot of chlorine, which can cause blindness in the marine mammals."

Mr James Chua, Singapore coordinator for marine conservation group Sea Shepherd Asia, said: "We are deeply concerned about which facilities these dolphins are coming from, whether they are closing down and need to move their dolphins to Funtasy Island, or just making room at their facilities for more dolphins caught from the wild or other sources."

Instead of having a lagoon filled with captive dolphins, he suggested that the Funtasy Island developers consider "responsible, regulated wild dolphin watching tours - a much more viable, ethical, cost-effective and profitable option".

Dr Taylor added: "There are wild dolphins in Batam's waters - bottlenose and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. I think it would be better to help support these groups of wild animals rather than bring in other animals."

Living with dolphins
Toh Yong Chuan And Janice Tai The Straits Times AsiaOne 3 May 15;

An Indonesian developer says Singapore buyers are showing keen interest in a project promising villas built over the sea, with dolphins at the residents' doorsteps.

Batam-based developer PT Batam Island Marina and its Singapore investment partner Seven Seas FID are planning 64 villas, each shaped like a round bamboo hut and built around a lagoon with dolphins which residents can feed and play with.

Priced at $758,000 each, the villas were launched here two weeks ago with a blaze of advertisements showing dolphins leaping out of the water, and the Marina Bay Sands skyline on the horizon. The project is coming up in the midst of six small islands known collectively as Pulau Manis, 3km off Batam.

Each villa has two bedrooms and is about the size of a Housing Board executive flat. The developer has promised shops and restaurants nearby, but has been mum about maintenance costs and whether residents must pay for the dolphins' upkeep.

Half the units went on sale at a swanky showroom in the upmarket One Degree 15 marina on Sentosa two weeks ago. A visit there found the place buzzing at the launch.

A team of about 10 salesmen dressed in suits attended to a steady stream of walk-in prospects, showing them a multimedia presentation, artists' impressions and a scale model of the villas, before discussing the financing plans over snacks, coffee and soft drinks.

According to Funtasy Island Development, a Singapore firm set up in 2010 to market the dolphin villas and other homes on Pulau Manis, there is no shortage of buyers.

Director Michael Yong declined to give exact figures but said the initial sales "exceeded expectations". A Malaysian with Singapore permanent residency, he owns 30 per cent of Funtasy Island Development. The rest is owned by Indonesian businessmen Ade Soehari and Luky Winata.

The project is coming up in an area owned by PT Batam Island Marina. Foreigners cannot own land in Indonesia but can be granted 25-year leases which can be extended in 20-year blocks. The Indonesian company has promised on its website to renew Funtasy Island's leases up to 2112.

There are eight other housing projects being built on Pulau Manis, with a total of 621 units - 159 are built over water and the rest are bungalows and apartments built on land.

Mr Yong's firm is marketing these properties and he said he has sold 90 per cent of the units so far, raking in $250 million since 2011.

"About 70 per cent of buyers were Singaporeans," he added.

None of the projects has been completed. At least one development, a cluster of bungalows that should have been completed last year, has been delayed. The latest project, the dolphin villas, is slated to be ready by the end of 2018.

The six islands have a land area of about 1 sq km, or about 140 football fields. The developer had included the waters around the islands in its calculation when it claimed in its promotional material that the "theme park" will be about two-thirds the size of Sentosa.

Besides the dolphin lagoon, the theme park also promises an aviary, a stingray habitat and boat ride through mangrove swamps. Visitors and residents will have access to the theme parks, the developer said in its brochures and website.

Visitors from Singapore now have to take a 45-minute ferry ride from HarbourFront Centre to Batam's Sekupang Ferry Terminal, clear Indonesian immigration and then hire a local boat for a 15-minute trip to Pulau Manis.

Mr Yong said the 16km journey between Sentosa and the islands will take just 20 minutes when his firm launches a direct ferry service.

A Sunday Times team visited the project site two weeks ago and was told by local fishermen that the islands were uninhabited until construction started a few years ago.

There were at least 50 uncompleted bungalows, part of a project called Corallium Villas that was supposed to have been ready in the middle of last year.

Mr Yong confirmed the delay and said it was caused by a longer than expected time to get an expert to conduct a green building study before construction could begin.

He said the affected buyers were paid $3 million in compensation for the delay. "This will come from future profits, so we still are financially sound," he said.

Retiree Serene Cheong was one of those who bought a $500,000 bungalow there in 2012. She was not too bothered when told that her bungalow, slated for completion next year, was six to nine months behind schedule.

"I am not too concerned because that is expected for waterfront projects where they have to do the piling deep in the water, " said Mrs Cheong, who is married and in her 50s.

The projects off Batam are not subject to any rules which apply to Singapore property projects as they are foreign property developments.

A spokesman for the Council of Estate Agencies said: "Whether consumers buy directly from foreign developers or through an estate agent, they should exercise due diligence before entering into any agreement to buy foreign properties."

Funtasy Island has guaranteed buyers a rental yield of 7 per cent a year for three years. This is typical of projects marketed in Jakarta, said Mr Ku Swee Yong, chief executive of estate agency Century 21.

Aside from evaluating the risks of overseas purchases, he said buyers of the Pulau Manis developments should consider longer-term factors like maintenance costs.

"The houses are built over sea water," he pointed out. "The build quality has to be top-notch and maintenance costs will be higher."