Lately in the blogging world, a Swimming with Dolphins excursion that was to be offered at the upcoming TBEX Conference in Cancun has caused quite the controversy. Many people were writing letters and signing petitions opposed to the dolphin swim, urging TBEX to cut ties with Delphinus Dolphinarium. Many travel writers vowed to boycott the conference entirely until tours were no longer offered to bloggers. Finally after being pressured, the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that they would be cancelling the dolphin swim tours at TBEX.
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Whether you are a blogger, a traveler, or an animal lover, all of this might have you wondering: why is everyone against dolphin swim programs?
Let’s face it: People who travel to destinations that attend animal-based tours tend to either love animals or find them to be fascinating. Many people bring their families to these types of places to provide their children with a fun and educational experience. They want to see these wild creatures in person and they want to learn more about them. As a lifelong vegetarian (turned vegan in the past five-or-so years) and animal lover, I didn’t realize what was wrong with these tourist traps until fairly recently. After all, the dolphins seem to enjoy swimming around with people, don’t they?
Swim-With-The-Dolphin (SWTD) programs are actually very bad for dolphins.
Multiple organizations oppose SWTD activities, including wildlife charity Care For The Wild International, the Humane Society, and the International Marine Mammal Project, among others. SWTD programs promote that it is therapeutic and fun for humans to be up close and personal with these extremely intelligent creatures. They also argue that the excursions raise environmental awareness about dolphins that live in the wild. However, is our pleasure worth another creature’s pain and displeasure? Do these tours really bring attention to any environmental issues or provide any education in an unnatural environment?
The Harsh Truth
A British study out of the University of Newcastle found that while observing bottlenose dolphins in a Swim-With-The-Dolphins tour in Tanzania, that “that these programs are highly stressful for dolphins because they disrupt natural resting, feeding and social behavior.”
Dolphins are very intelligent, highly sociable creatures. They live and travel in large groups called pods. There can be several or up to 1000 dolphins in a pod. Dolphins establish strong social bonds with one another, even staying with sick or injured individuals, helping them to the surface to breathe if necessary. Dr Horace Dobbs, Founder and Honourary Director of International Dolphin Watch, states that holding dolphins captive at aquatic parks is torturous as it separates them from their pods.
Treatment of the Dolphins
You might wonder how these dolphins are captured in the wild to participate in SWTD tours. They are generally obtained by methods called “drive fisheries”. The first purpose of the drive hunt is to eliminate any toothed whales that compete with humans for fish, and to provide the meat of these animals to local consumers. The Oscar award winning documentary, The Cove, details these practices with intense imagery. From the book, “Death at SeaWorld” by David Kirby, the scenario is explained:
Fishermen take out several small motorized boats to locate a pod of bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, or false killer whales (and possibly such other species as pilot whales). Once the fishermen locate a pod, they begin herding the animals toward shore, using the noise of the boats’ engines and the banging of pipes underwater. There are some reports that they also use underwater explosives. The fishermen will then either drive the animals right onto the shore or trap them in a bay. Either way, shallow water is necessary, because fishermen slaughter the dolphins by getting into the water and moving through the pod, stabbing animals to death…Animals destined for slaughter may be hauled out onto land with cranes, often still alive. The cruelty is enormous. (page 213)
The secondary purpose of drive fisheries are to keep the youngest and most attractive animals to be sold to aquariums, marine theme parks, and Swim-With-The-Dolphin programs. Out of the total amount of captured dolphins that are spared, only 53% of them survive the first three months of captivity after being exposed to stressful situations, human illness, and chemicals. Until reading “Death at Seaworld”, I could have never imagined that participating in a SWTD tour group would be supporting one of the most inhumane slaughters in the world.
Furthermore, the dolphins at SWTD excursions are often trained using cruel food deprivation techniques, forcing them to either perform tricks or starve. There are some SWTD programs that use wild dolphins rather than captive ones. Still, these types of tours can cause psychological distress to the animals. One example in Hawaii targets dolphins that have little choice but to tolerate human presence because swimming away into the surrounding areas puts them in threatening situations with their natural predators.
There are really no circumstances where SWTD tours can be more ethical or humane.
What Are Our Options?
The best option is to choose a different activity when visiting destinations that offer Swim-With-The-Dolphin tours. Currently, only four countries have banned SWTD tours – Chile, Costa Rica, Hungary, and India. These excursions are incredibly popular in Mexico, the Caribbean, the United States, Ireland, Australia, Cuba, Israel, and New Zealand. They are also very popular with cruise lines, with most tropical destination cruises offering dolphin swim tours. Before I realized how detrimental these programs are, I actually considered booking one on a past cruise. The only thing that kept me from going was the price – it was over $200 per person! It is very sad that so much money is made from the exploitation and abuse of animals.
Another option would be to discourage others from booking a Swim-With-The-Dolphins tour, which is my main reason for writing this article. As a travel blogger, I feel as though it is my responsibility to write honest and well-researched articles about particular destinations and activities. Though I have not participated in a dolphin swim, this issue is near and dear to my heart as an animal lover and activist. I hope that I have reached out to at least one person by writing this.
If you would like to enjoy an educational, fun, and extremely rewarding experience, I highly recommend booking a whale and dolphin watching tour rather than a Swim-With-The-Dolphins tour. Be sure to choose a reputable company that follows the conservation rules set by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Seeing whales and dolphins emerge in their natural habitat is arguably more thrilling than swimming alongside one in a forced environment. We embarked on a whale and dolphin watching tour in Dominica and it was spectacular. Other options for kind and responsible wildlife encounters include snorkeling excursions and scuba diving experiences.
As for the therapeutic nature of the dolphin-human interaction, there is no clear evidence to show that dolphins are any better than a typical household pet for therapy. For those seeking animal-assisted therapy, I recommend that you adopt a domesticated animal, such as a dog or a cat, from a local animal shelter – of course, taking great care to be a responsible pet owner.
I really hope that when you plan any future activities involving animals that you consider the harm that may be inflicted onto them. Do the situations they are placed in seem natural? Are the animals made to perform for human amusement? There are so many wonderful places to visit and millions of incredible things to do around the world, and hurting animals doesn’t need to be one of them! I urge you to book an alternative to Swim-With-The-Dolphin programs. Ultimately, if these programs are not profitable, they will shut down entirely. Please do not fund them any further.