– By Tatiana Henry
Swim-with-dolphins (‘SWD’) programs have become hugely popular around the world. As an animal lover and aspiring veterinarian who loves dolphins, I even thought they seemed great when I was younger and was surprised by my parents with one for a birthday.
While swimming with dolphins was fun for me at the time, I can’t help but feel guilty in retrospect. I now realize that the conservation benefits these programs claim and their appeal to people’s fascination of dolphins are a clever facade, covering up how dangerous and cruel they really are.
It is important to note that for most SWD programs, captivity is a prerequisite. The dolphins have to be contained and controlled in order to be used for entertainment. This is to say that the detriments of marine parks and dolphinaria around the world, such as lowered survival rates, behavioural abnormalities, and increased signs of physical and psychological stress, also apply to SWD programs.
No artificial environment is truly suitable for dolphins. It is simply impossible to create an enclosure that is large enough and stimulating enough to keep dolphins as active and entertained as they are in the wild. Furthermore, captivity can cause stress in dolphins due to factors such as unnatural water, lack of tides, constant human presence, lack of social groups, and excess noise. Numerous studies conclude that the stress of captivity can lead to physical illness, and even death in dolphins. Tell-tale behavioral abnormalities, such as repeated movements and self-mutilation, often signal psychological distress in captive dolphins.
There is also the issue of where these dolphins come from. While some may be rescue dolphins initially bought into human care for rehabilitation, and others are the product of facilitated breeding programs, they are all placed in captivity for the sole purpose of our entertainment. The lucrative SWD business also helps to fuel dolphin capture and trade, which involves stressful and harmful capture and transportation procedures.
If the dolphins are stressed before people even get in the water, I think the constant human interaction they are exposed to once a SWD program begins only increases their discomfort.
I was quite young when I participated in a SWD experience, but I remember feeling bad for hanging off of a dolphin’s dorsal fin. I was told that they are strong and sturdy and not to worry, but I was still uncomfortable with the idea that I couldn’t ask if it was okay with the dolphin.
As it turns out, this was a valid concern. Dolphins have been observed displaying signs of alarm when close to human swimmers, suggesting they do not always want to be near us. When the dolphins in SWD programs are forced to be near to and interact with humans all day with no means of escape, they understandably show signs of distress and frustration.
This added stress of human interaction may have physical consequences. One notable case was at a SWD program in Mexico, which resulted in the unexpected death of a dolphin named Luna, who was found to have stomach ulcers, a stress-related condition, just five weeks after being introduced to the facility.
There are also the physical risks that humans pose to dolphins, such as makeup and sun cream contaminating the water, and jewellery and nails scratching dolphins’ skin.
While dolphins are certainly cute and good-natured, they also get fed up with repetitive behavior, and they are much stronger than we are. Forcing dolphins to interact with humans when they may not want to leads to concerns for human participants of SWD programs as well.
While stress leads to illness and mortality in dolphins, it also contributes to aggressive behavior. Often, stress-related aggression is seen with forced contact and excess noise, and injuries occur when humans mistreat the dolphins, whether intentionally or not. Incidences of human injury during SWD programs have included bites, bruises, scratches, scrapes, and even broken bones.
Another major concern that many SWD programs do not advertise is disease transmission. Dolphins can carry viruses, bacteria, and parasites that may be transmittable to humans and can cause disease. There is also some water contamination risk associated with keeping dolphins and their waste in small enclosures, rendering open wounds and dolphin kisses potential opportunities for infection.
Considering there is no substantial proof that SWD programs help in educational or conservational efforts, dolphin advocates have suggested less invasive dolphin encounters that do not involve captivity and do not force interaction with humans.
Some suggest wild dolphin swims, but there are concerns over introducing the same stressors that appear with existing SWD programs to the dolphins’ wild habitat. Whale and Dolphin Conservation have stated that dolphin watching is the most sustainable and safe alternative, allowing the dolphins to be happy in their own environments, and humans to observe how dolphins really act in the wild, even if from afar.
About the Author
Tatiana Henry is a student at Duke University majoring in Biology with a concentration in animal behavior and minoring in Women’s Studies. She is studying to attend veterinary school in the future and is interested in wildlife and exotic animals, particularly regarding animal welfare and conservation. Tatiana has worked at the Duke Lemur Center and the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center based at Duke.