Trip Report — Bahamas 13-15 Sep

From Michael Sellers

BACKGROUND
This trip happened at the invitation of the Bahamas Film Commission who hosted a special screening of Eye of the Dolphin in Freeport for invited guests and media on September 13th. We took advantage of being in Bahamas to shoot a featurette for the DVD entitled “The Dolphins of UNEXSO”, and to hold meetings with senior managers of UNEXSO and the Film Commission

THE SCREENING
Screening was well attended and included a range of viewers from the island. Many of the residents of Smith’s Point, the town depicted in the movie, were there as well as higher ups and politicians, including two Senators. The film was very well received and media coverage over the folloowing two daysin the locao media was excellent.

UNEXSO — BACKGROUND
UNEXSO is an acronym for Underwater Explorers Society. The company was first formed 40 years ago as a dive operator in Port Lucaya, Grand Bahama Island. In the late 80’s it expanded it’s operations to include dolphin encounters and “swim with” programs. Currently the dolphin program represents approximately 50% of its revenues. There are 16 dolphins, 10 of which have been born at UNEXSO. A unique feature of the UNEXSO dolphin program is that all of the dolphins are trained for open-sea activities. UNEXSO is quick to point out this aspect of their program and wishes to highlight it further in the global media as a way of differentiating UNEXSO from “traditional captivity”. At the same time, UNEXSO attempts to maintain good relations with the captivity industry (SeaWorld and the like) and is conscious of not offending representatives of that industy in its quest to differentiate itself. UNEXSO is wholly owned a German/Bahamian entrepreneur Albert “Ali” Bscher. (The unusual spelling of the last name “Bscher” is correct.) UNEXSO consists of two facilities: “UNEXSO”, which is the headquarters located on the harbor at Port Lucaya Marketplace, and Dolphin Experience, the dolphin facility where the dolphins are kept, which is approximately 2 miles away (10 minutes by boat). Visitors report to the UNEXSO headquarters for programs where they pay, shop in the 3,000 square foot gift shop, take scuba lessons in a special pool, eat at the restaurant, etc. They then board one of 5 boats which take then to Dolphin Experience for dolphin activities, or take them diving. Aside from general reef and wreck diving, UNEXSO also has a succesful “shark dive” program which is highly popular.


MEETING WITH MARC BAUMAN, COO, UNEXSO
Bauman has taken over the duties which were previously handled by Don Churchill. He comes from a SCUBA retailing and tour operations background and is a very engating, successful youthful entrepreneur. (He apears to be a bout 35 years old.) He discussed the current programs and future plans for UNEXSO. Owner Ali Bscher has approved and funded a $10M expansion of the Dolphin Experience facility. Much of the expansion is related to increasing the research component to the dolphin program (See discussion with Veronica Cuccurullo for more on current research activities.) The new facility, which is expected to roll out over the next 4 years, will result in a 100 acre “campus” centered around the 12 acres of lagoons and pens that are where the dolphins are currently maintained.

Bauman noted that the expansion is fully funded and showed architectural drawings which have been approved and are in the process of being implemented. He noted that it is not money that keeps the pace slow — rather it is a) zoning issues, and b) the need to conduct the upgrade in a manner that does not disturb the conditions under which the dolphins live.

Bauman expressed keen optimism about EOD and offered full support on all levels to future films and production activities, as well as any research proposals which we might put forward. I made him generally aware of our intention to make additional movies and to do so in close coordination with UNEXSO, and he welcomed this. He also expressed keen interest in any activities which we might undertake which could further his mission of evolving UNEXSO into a one of a kind multi-purpose education, entertainment, and research facility.

MEETINGS WITH VERONICA CUCCURULLO, General Manager, Dolphin Experience
It was a pleasant surprise to find that Veronica is now in charge of Dolphin Experience. She had been one of the trainers when I first visited UNEXSO, and had been extremely open and helpful during those preliminary visits. When we did the actual filming of EOD, she was on hiatus from UNEXSO (we weren’t sure what had happened), and so we were able to hire her as an assistant location manager for the film and she turned out to be one of our top performers on the film. Apparently whe rejoined UNEXSO after Christ DeAngelo (who was GM of Dolphin Experience) left, and as management changes have occurred she has risen to the level of General Manager. (Comment: This gives us a very strong ally in a crucial position–a position that was previously occupied by someone who was vaguely, if not distinctly, a bit hostile to us and our efforts.) Veronica, by the way, attended the screening on Sept 13th and was delighted with the movie and its depiction of “her” dolphins…

Veronica went over the program at Dolphin Experience as it has evolved. In touring the facilities, many upgrades were visible — particularly the addition of several million dollars worth of floating concrete docs which replaces the rustic wooden ones that were there previously. The number of pens has been increased and the actual acreage owned by UNEXSO, both water and land, has been increased.

Over the course of our two days on site, we spent 8-10 hours with Veronica, and she went out of her way to give us free access to all areas of Dolphin Experience without supervision, which is quite a step forward and indicative of a level of trust that will be helpful going forward. (It also recognizes that Carly and I have now had many days of work with the dolphins and “know the rules” and can be relied upon to follow them.)

One aspect which is significant is that UNEXSO is actively looking for dolphin research partners. They are currently conducting research in coordination with Dr. Terry Williams of UC Santa Cruz. This is dolphin physiology which involves having the dolphins wear heart and body monitors when they dive to depth so that their body’s mechanisms for dealing with extreme pressure, etc, can be better understood.

We also had an opportunity to discuss with Veronica at some length her experiences with Third Phase like conditions in which dolphins would be free to come and go. She noted and described in some detail conditions that occurred at UNEXSO at the time of Hurricane Jean in which the nets were ripped open in numerous places by the tidal surge and for a week the dolphins were in fact free to come and go, and many of them did just that. None left the area and some did not leave the pens — but most did go out and “explore”, only to come back without incident. She also noted that in training dolphins for open water work, it is a difficult process because the dolphins initially are very insecure, partiucularly if wild dolphins appear in the area, and will typically “bolt for home” as soon as anything happens to make them uncomfortable.

We talked to Veronica about future films and discussed various ideas. She also put us in touch with Paul Mockler, who is one of the world’s premiere underwater directors of photography and who happens to live on the island, in Smith’s Point (!), and whom we had met previously. She expressed interest in helping us network with Paul and other Bahamians who could be part of our production when the time comes. In all, the meetings with Veronica and her staff were extremely positive and there was no sense of reserve or hesitation — rather one of partnership and shared endeavor on all levels.

FUTURE COOPERATION WITH UNEXSO
UNEXSO is clearly inclined to work closely with us in future projects with an open-ness and cooperative sense that was not part of the first venture. (Things were not “bad” the first time around — just very cautious and “buttoned down” as opposed to relaxed and “we’re on the same team” kind of feeling.) The open-ness may present significant opportunities for us in ways that will be the subject of future reporting.

MEETINGS WITH DONNA MACKEY, FILM COMMISSIONER FOR GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND
Donna Mackey represents the Bahamas Film Commission for Grand Bahama Island and she was the one who put together the special screening, invited the press, made sure of attendance and made sure we were properly covered in the local media. She has always been supportive and helpful; however on this trip it reached a new level because of the content of the film, which she repeatedly said (to anyone who would listen) was unique and a celebration of Bahamian culture in a way that no film before it has ever done. She went out of her way to spread this message in all of her interviews and all of her conversations.

She hosted a departure lunch for us on Saturday and invited several Bahamian “high rollers” including the son of the former Prime Minister who heads a government-owned financial services company. The general theme of her comments was that not only will the film commission support futur films, etc, but that she will on a personal level help us network with any key personalities in the islands, etc.

PHONE MEETING WITH CRAIG WOODS, FILM COMMISSIONER
Craig Woods, the overall film commissioner for the Bahamas, called several times while we were there and echoed Donna Mackey’s comments, and offered to support future projects to the maximum including making sure that we can avail of a 17% tax rebate available on all production spending in the Bahamas. He also volunteered to put us in touch with government and financial resources and to generally provide support in whatever way is needed.

CONCLUSIONS
This was an important opportunity to solidify relationships with key persons in the Bahamas and to promoted EOD and the series in the country where it will be shot. As a result of the meetings, there are many new initiatives which we are confident we can undertake with UNEXSO in particular which will benefit both companies and which can be structured in such a way as to be particularly helpful to our efforts to build a global audience for our products. (More on this later.) There were no negatives at all in the visit, and the stage has been set for very productive future cooperation.

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~ by Michael Sellers on September 18, 2007.

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