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Swimming With Dolphins: The Dark Truth

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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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.

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.

Dolphins in their pods. Photo Credit:Wikipedia

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.

Dolphins living wild and free

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.

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Ashley Casey

Thursday 28th of February 2019

My dad just invited my boyfriend and I to a trip to the big island of Hawaii in November 2017. He was explaining all the things we would do, one being "You can swim with dolphins!"

I absolutely love all animals and would love to be that close to a dolphin, but I'm not really sure about how dolphins on the big island are treated? I would imagine better than Sea World (which I clearly do not support) but I don't want to support a practice that isn't seen as being animal friendly. Is anyone here familiar at all with this?


Friday 1st of March 2019


While I can't speak specifically to how that place in Hawaii operates, I think there are a few things you should look at. First of all, if the dolphins are in captivity, definitely pass on the excursion. Next, if the dolphins are in such close contact with people, it doesn't seem too natural...sometimes they are freely swimming in the ocean and involved in these types of programs, but they're baited with food and lured to participate. For me, I'd only participate if it was a snorkeling type of trip and there was the chance to see dolphins, but it wasn't necessarily guaranteed, you know? Let me know how it goes!


Friday 13th of April 2018

Another thing to think about.....dolphins have a natural expression that looks like a smile, and the noises they make sound like happy chatter to humans. If it has a natural smile, silly noises, and fun antics, it's a happy animal! Right? Wrong! It's easy to think that the dolphins love what they do and are there for the joy of humans. The humans never stop to think that they are anthropomorphizing these animals based on how they "look" to us. They aren't human, and they are trained to behave how we want them to behave. It's an illusion. I've never participated in a SWTD thing, never will. I've seen them swim in the wild and that's much better to me.....they are truly joyful creatures when free to be what they are. What humans need to grasp is that we don't have to touch everything in order to love and appreciate it. A friend of mine just participated in one of these things and proudly posted on social media. She's an animal activist herself but doesn't have a clue what she just supported by participating simply because she felt that she needed to cross it off her "bucket list". **sigh**


Wednesday 9th of November 2016

I also think that tours aimed at watching dolphins swimming freely in the wild are better for the dolphins than the ones that offer a swimming experience with the dolphins. The only exception to this that I can think of is at a conservation and rehabilitation centre like the Clearwater marine acquarium which lets visitors interact with Winter, the famous and endearing dolphin who cannot be released back into the ocean.


Friday 15th of January 2016

Great post! Thank you for writing this. After spending a year in Thailand and reading so much about elephants it seems obvious that you shouldn't ride them, but I have friends who go there and do it! You have to remember that people honestly just don't know. The more articles like this the better and this was very informative!


Friday 15th of January 2016

Also I've been avoiding watching The Cove because I don't think I can stand it But I've heard so much about it!

lavena Costa

Wednesday 2nd of September 2015

Thank you for revealing the inhumane truth about the slaughter and abuse of dolphins for a few moments of human pleasure. Can you imagine the emotional lives after the surviving dolphins are in these parks? How terribly sad to know this sort of scam exists because tourists simply think these dolphins just love to swim with humans. So glad my kids thought it was a bit "creepy" to swim with the dolphins on our first trip to Hawaii. These animals do not seek out humans to swim with along the beaches, nor do they leave their family units to be with us along the shoreline. I can not think of anything more cruel than what these poor dolphins have seen, heard, smelled, touched and felt, as they were captured and trained to swim with tourists. They may even have a sense of oneness with each other that is broken... as they are broken... Perhaps the dolphins who endure understand they will be starved or killed if they do not take our kids for nice rides. Not quite the lovely picture on the brochures...

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