If you don’t think too deeply about it, a swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) experience may seem like a unique, harmless way to get an up-close look at some of the world’s most intelligent, fun-loving sea mammals.
But what many people don’t know or haven’t considered is that most attractions designed to expose humans to wild creatures don’t enhance the lives of the animals involved. Sadly, this includes the SWTD industry. And not only are these programs bad for dolphins, they aren’t entirely safe for people, either.
Wild dolphins often travel long distances each day. They may swim in a straight line for a hundred miles, move along a coastline for several miles and then swim back to their starting point, or they may spend several hours or days in a certain spot. Dolphins living in captivity swim in a circle around a tank or within the small confines of some other artificial habitat. Caged dolphins are often seen swimming around and around in their tanks, peering through the glass or other barricade, or floating listlessly on the water’s surface. These behaviors indicate boredom and psychological stress.
Most SWTD programs outside the U.S. capture their dolphins from the wild. Not only is this practice extremely traumatic for wild dolphins, often resulting in a life-threatening condition known as capture stress or capture myopathy, it can also have a negative impact on the pods from which the dolphins are taken.
Some captive dolphins will attempt to assimilate to their environment by looking to humans to take on the roles normally filled by other dolphins in the pod. Some of the behaviors noted include submission or sexual aggression around humans, as well as agitation and aggressive behavior resulting from the stress of forced interaction.
These behaviors can result in serious danger to swimmers, and in fact, SWTD programs have reported injuries to humans including tooth rakes, lacerations, broken bones, internal injuries and shock.
For the dolphins, unnatural exposure to people can result in human bacterial and viral infections, and stress-related conditions like ulcers.
How you can help:
First, understand that regardless of the promotional pitch, SWTD programs can’t possibly be “eco-friendly” when dolphins are forced to live in captivity, violently captured in the wild, and/or forced into interactions with humans.
As for the “educational” aspect of these programs, children (and adults) can learn all about dolphins through pictures, books, documentaries, educational TV shows, and other media. There’s no need to get within kissing distance of a wild creature to learn about it, and despite all the footage you’ve seen of dolphins appearing to enjoy performing for humans or swimming with them, it’s a mostly false image designed to draw ticket buyers to dolphin attractions.
Secondly, rest assured that a portion of the money you spend at a captive-bred dolphin attraction (typically $100 to $300 for a 15-minute swim) will inevitably go to fund the capture of wild dolphins taken from their pods. The SWTD business has seen enormous growth over the last 20 years, and the global trade in wild dolphins has grown right along with it.
And lastly, from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA):
"Love dolphins? Don’t buy a ticket! Untold numbers of dolphins die during the notoriously violent wild captures. These captures are carried out in secret - far from the public’s eye - so obtaining an accurate number of dolphins killed is nearly impossible.
What we do know is that the whole process is so traumatic that mortality rates of dolphins captured from the wild shoot up six-fold in the first five days of confinement. To the captivity industry, these numbers are accepted as standard operating expenses, but if this information was printed on SWTD brochures, it is unlikely that any person who cares about dolphins would purchase a ticket.”