For many people swimming with dolphins is a lifelong ambition and dream, but does fulfilling this dream come at too high a price?
As more and more of us venture out to far-flung destinations to get closer to wildlife, close encounters with endangered and rare animals are becoming increasingly popular. Swimming with dolphins is one of these activities which many people dream about, and for some, doing it has had a life-changing impact. It is even being used as a treatment for depression. This increasing demand, along with increased awareness regarding the vulnerability of these protected animals, raises the question whether swimming with dolphins is really good for dolphins.
The image of captive dolphins doing tricks and pulling people along is all too familiar. In order to supply the growing demand from people wanting to swim with captive trained dolphins, many dolphins are caught from wild populations that are already under threat. If the dolphin survives this ordeal (they can suffer serious injuries during capture and in transit and often die), it faces a shorter life than in the wild, blighted by stress and illness, unable to roam, mate, hunt, communicate and play as it would in the wild.
Even when kept in ‘semi-natural’ conditions like a sea pen or fenced off area, it does not resemble the natural life pattern of a dolphin and the enclosure often has poor water quality along with pollution and increased water temperature due to its proximity to the coast. It can even injure the dolphin in a storm.
Swimming with dolphins in the wild allows the dolphins to be there out of their own free will and also to move away if they want to. Unfortunately, despite clear guidelines some less than responsible operators are under pressure to get all of their clients into the water with the animals, which can lead to repeated harassment of the pod by boats and swimmers and injury of dolphins by propellers. It is very difficult to know what the long term impact is of the continued disruption of their feeding, resting and nursing grounds.
Studies from the Wild Dolphin Foundation are showing that with increasing frequency dolphins prefer and are more attentive to boats, then to swimmers in the water. Tori Cullins, a marine biologist and operator of swimming with dolphin trips, studies the behaviour of dolphins. Cullins said she sees no negative effect on the dolphins, but added: ''If we weren't here, I don't think they'd miss us. They're curious about us, but not the way we're fascinated by them.''
It is often forgotten that despite their reputation as placid and gentle creatures, dolphins are strong and sometimes unpredictable animals and swimmers have been known to incur injuries from swimming with captive dolphins. The Humane Society of the United States have stated that the stress inflicted by the unnatural conditions of captivity often causes dolphins to behave aberrantly toward people and other dolphins. According to a study commissioned by The National Marine Fisheries Service, swimming with captive dolphin programs promote dangerous and stressful situations for humans and dolphins alike, but there has never been a report of a wild dolphin injuring a human swimmer.
According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), disease transmission from dolphins to humans is also a serious concern. However, according to Dr. Gregory Bossart from the University of Miami School of Medicine, evidence of transmission of diseases between dolphins and humans has only in very rare cases been found where people handled sick stranded animals. Disease transmission between healthy dolphins and healthy humans who swim with them, if it occurs at all, is very unlikely and probably no more likely than from pets.
Swimming with wild dolphins on the other hand can have its benefits. Aside from the breathtaking experience for the swimmer lucky enough to have a friendly encounter with these animals, and the obvious benefits of ecotourism to the local economy, there are various ways in which this dolphin tourism can have a positive impact on the long term protection of the species. Tourism revenue often encourages the preservation of species and their habitat and helps fund conservation efforts with some marine areas acquiring increased protection status. Although more needs to be learnt about the long term impacts of marine ecotourism, when swimming with dolphins is done sensitively, with minimum impact on wild dolphin populations and their habitat, it can be an inspiring and educational experience that increases people’s awareness and appreciation of the natural world and its fragility. It can be a strong contributor to dolphin conservation and provide a viable alternative to less sustainable activities such as whaling.
With all this scientific uncertainty, it is all the more important that operators have strict policies to minimise disturbance from swimmers and boats alike. Swimmers should be instructed on how to enjoy the experience in the least intrusive way possible, and boats should reduce their speed and engine noise to a minimum. If the dolphins are happy, it will also ensure the long term viability of the dolphin tourism industry. If they’re not, there is nothing we can do to stop them from moving away.
We do not promote or support any holidays or activities where dolphins have been caught from the wild or are in any form of captivity. Our view is that so long as there is no compelling evidence that swimming with wild dolphins is detrimental to the welfare of dolphins, swimming with dolphins in the wild is the ethical way to interact with these intelligent and highly social animals, providing it is done responsibly. Our aim is, rather than banning swimming with dolphins altogether, to encourage more ethical alternatives by carefully screened operators who ensure that interference is kept to a minimum and benefits to conservation and local communities are maximised. Ensuring that swimming with dolphins is done in a more sustainable way not only benefits dolphins, but also ensures that the traveller has a more genuine, guilt-free experience.
If you have decided to take the plunge and swim with ‘man’s cousins in the sea’, accept that they are still wild animals that do not adhere to any schedules. Enjoy the whole experience of being out there, including when on the boat, where you may be able to see the dolphins and their behaviours better, closer, and for longer amounts of time. If you’re not sure about getting in the water with them, why not go on a whale watching trip
Take a look at all our responsible dolphin holidays
Whale and Dolphins Conservation Society (WDCS)
International Dolphin Watch Code of Conduct
The Wild Dolphin Foundation
By Iris Knoop
For more information about animal welfare check out our animal welfare section