The many swim-with captive dolphin attractions around the world are very popular and lucrative for the tourism industry. Although it may seem like a fun and harmless way to spend an afternoon while on vacation, it is far from harmless for the dolphin and could be dangerous to humans.
In addition to being captive, possibly having been taken from the wild and being subject to a multitude of stressors, swim-with dolphins are denied privacy and are forced to repeatedly interact with human strangers.
Dolphin swim-with encounters can also be dangerous, since the animals may become stressed from their unnatural surroundings and can injure visitors. The dolphins in these attractions are still very much wild animals. Dolphins can also carry diseases that can and have been transmitted to humans and can be dangerous to human health.
As dolphinariums expand in the developing world, cetaceans are taken from their natural habitat to be confined in enclosures for human entertainment. Young females, vital members of the community, are the most sought after because they are less aggressive than males. Such attractions are flourishing in vacation resorts in developing countries where facilities can be poorly maintained with little regulation or oversight.
In 1994 the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency responsible for implementing and enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, published a report on swim-with dolphin encounters. It found that “[D]olphins are large, powerful animals that can inflict serious harm on people. NMFS has injury reports on file that illustrate the potential risks to swimmers and dolphins in [swim-with] programs are real, and should not be overlooked or disregarded.” The report concluded that to ensure the safety of dolphins and swimmers, swim-with dolphin encounters should be strictly controlled.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy
Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) is a type of swim-with dolphin encounter that is used for people suffering from mental or physical disorders as a form of treatment. DAT proponents foster an unproven belief that touching and being close to a dolphin has unique motivational or healthful powers, although studies show that such claims are without scientific merit. There is no evidence that DAT is any more therapeutic than other forms of animal-assisted therapy, which are far less expensive for patients and less harmful to animal welfare (as domesticated species are used).
DAT sessions can cost thousands of dollars. Many parents of disabled children seek multiple sessions, in an understandable desire to help their loved one at any cost. As a result, DAT facilities are cropping up in many countries, with DAT often used to justify construction of new dolphin facilities, giving an “altruistic” cover to a money-making scheme. This industry thrives on the vulnerability of its patients, and both patients and dolphins are exploited for profit.
Myths and Facts about Interacting with Whales and Dolphins
All whales and dolphins (collectively, “cetaceans”) want to be with us as much as we want to be with them.
Cetaceans are wild animals with no particular interest in or connection to terrestrial mammals, including humans. Not harming them sometimes means leaving them alone. Interactions with cetaceans in the wild should be minimized and cetaceans do not belong in captivity at all.
Swimming with whales and dolphins in the wild is harmless.
When swimmers enter the water to try to swim with free-ranging cetaceans, this is an added level of invasion of their living space, from two dimensions (on a boat at the water’s surface) to three (in the water with them). The most common activity free-ranging cetaceans are pursuing when swimmers try to swim with them is resting (otherwise human swimmers wouldn’t be able to keep up with them). So swimmers are essentially disturbing their sleep. This can have long-term negative impacts. The only time it is appropriate to swim with whales and dolphins in the wild is when they approach people. If, conversely, people approach them, then the interaction is probably disturbing them.
Swimming with captive dolphins is a great idea—a “bucket list” activity!
By virtue of their size, oceanic ecology, and wide-ranging habits, cetaceans cannot thrive in captivity. In nature, whales and dolphins tend to have complex and stable social bonds—strangers are very rarely encountered. Captive whales and dolphins in normal performance exhibits have relatively long-term, stable bonds with their trainers. However, dolphins in swim-with attractions must interact with many strangers every day. This is not natural and adds additional stress to an already stressful situation.
Whale-watching is entirely benign.
Whale-watching has an impact on cetaceans in the wild. Vessels approaching these animals in the ocean are encroaching on their living space. Whale-watching impacts can be mitigated and minimized, but not entirely eliminated. Whale-watching has strong conservation value, but only when it is done responsibly.
All whale-watching operators care about the animals they watch and would never harm them.
All whale-watching vessels have the potential to harass—and even harm, through vessel strikes, for example—the animals they watch. The key is for potential customers to research companies to ensure they follow “best practices” (either by voluntarily following strong codes of conduct or by operating in jurisdictions with strong regulations and enforcement) and minimize impacts. See https://iwc.int/whalewatching and https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/ to learn about “best practices.”
Kayaks and other nonmotorized vessels are always better for watching whales and dolphins because they are quieter.
Cetaceans are acoustic animals. A well-behaved motorized vessel can have less of an impact in terms of disturbance than poorly behaved kayakers. This may seem counterintuitive, but whales can be very startled when silent kayaks “sneak up” on them. They at least know where a motorized vessel is and can keep track of it.