Swimming With Dolphins: The Dark Truth

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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?

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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.

49 Responses

  1. Yes, I had read about this a couple months ago when a couple of travel bloggers spoke out about TBEX having the swimming with the dolphins being a sponsored blogger tour. I am glad it was cancelled and good to know more about this. I know folks who live near dolphins and have the wonderful chance to do this naturally (lucky, lucky them!), so I understand the appeal but hope more places will move to get rid of these harmful tours. #SundayTraveler

    • After reading some of the other articles, I definitely became inspired to write my own take on the situation, especially after reading the book, “Death at SeaWorld” and watching movies like Blackfish. I hope that these kinds of tours are put to an end, and the trapping/sale of dolphins comes to an end someday.

  2. I am so glad this nonsense was cancelled as part of the TBEX but it is sad how popular these things are. And the biggest problem is that people just don’t realize what’s wrong with them! Also the ‘ignorance is bliss’ -mentality seems to be pretty popular.. As a vegan as well it makes me sad when I travel the world and see the how the tourism industry exploits animals. I just wrote a post about Jordan and discouraged anyone from using donkeys or horse carriages when visiting Petra. It’s all about educating our fellow travellers!

    • Oh, I know – there are so many ways that animals are exploited around the world, it’s terrible. The best we can do is not support these things, or write articles to let other people know what might be wrong with it. Hopefully other people will be inspired not to participate in these kinds of things! I will definitely check out your article about Petra and the donkeys/horse carriages – it’s great that you wrote about that!

  3. Angelica Wilk
    | Reply

    This became big news! While I am guilty of having participated in this activity a few years ago when I visited the Bahamas, I “swam with” them in their own natural habitat in the ocean and we took a boat to them so I’m glad it wasn’t a pool setting or a closed off area as it usually turns out to be. Obviously as time went on, I learned more about the harm it does to the dolphins and what really goes on. Happy that this issue became public and that we are all more educated on it.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think that most people who partake in these activities love animals and would love the chance to be close to them. I think the more that we can educate everyone, and the more that it becomes public, the better off we all are (and the dolphins, too!)

  4. budgetjan
    | Reply

    Yes it is much better to view them in the wild I agree. Tweeted to spread the word.

  5. BavarianSojourn
    | Reply

    Great that people are standing up to issues like these. I wouldn’t want to see them in any other environment than in the wild as they swim past my boat!…

  6. CarmensTravelTips
    | Reply

    I was really please to hear that they had cancelled the swim with the dolphin excursions at TBEX. If it’s stressful for the dolphins than don’t promote it. Great article!

    • I’m glad that people spoke out and put enough pressure on the tourism board for them to cancel the excursion!

  7. Mrs Chasing the Donkey
    | Reply

    I really had not known very much about this until all of the TBEX drama. I have never been to see a display as an adult, only as a child and I’ll now never take my son! Big thanks for linking up with us for #SundayTraveler again.

    • Yay! I think most people don’t know how harmful these tours are, but hopefully lots of people will write articles and get the word out, and these kinds of things won’t be profitable anymore!

  8. Marissa Sutera
    | Reply

    So glad you posted this. Much of this was news to me and is great to know. It’s a shame to see such animal cruelty occurring so often. Dolphin and whale watching are wonderful alternatives that are just as cool and fun!

  9. Chantae
    | Reply

    Such an eye opener. It really takes some discussion to realize how detrimental and unnatural these SWTD tours are. I’m glad bloggers at TBEX are speaking up!!

  10. slightly astray
    | Reply

    This is a great post!! I will never do a swim with dolphin thing and I no longer support organizations like Sea World after watching Blackfish. However, I did really want to do the swim with wild dolphins tour in Hawaii, where they drop you off in the ocean to snorkel and see the dolphin pods. I didn’t because it was expensive, but I still really want to do that. Looks like that’s not the best either. :( I’m really glad TBEX cancelled this and there’s more awareness now!!

    • I’m so happy to see SeaWorld’s stock take a huge dive, and to see their attendance drop so much…it gives me hope that films like Blackfish can really influence change.The more that people talk about these things, write about them, make movies about them, the more knowledgeable we all become and the better off we are! I think that if you want to see dolphins, you should look up a reputable whale watching / dolphin watching tour and try to see them that way, in their natural habitat. It might not be swimming beside them, but it is still brilliant to see!

  11. Christa Thompson
    | Reply

    Hello, on behalf of Christa, host of The Sunday Traveler, I was stopping by to check out your article ‘Swimming With Dolphins: The Dark Truth’. Wow! I often wondered of such things. My heart is aching. I too am an animal lover and somewhat of an activist. After watching a documentary when I was at the age of 15, I’d decided to boycott veal for similar principals. This is disheartening and reminds me of slavery and what goes on behind the scenes in the diamond industry for similar attributes. Often the public is either outright told or lead to believe that these animals used in these interactive tours are “rehabilitated” and for various reasons “can not be returned to their natural habitats”. But with this in depth information, even IF it were true, it would have no bearing to continue the support of such tours due to the fact that it disrupts their schedule and they long for their pods thereby causing them stress. Thank you so much for shedding much needed light on this topic. I for one will not be a participator in SWTD tours. Something about it NEVER resonated in me and now I know why.

    • An interesting note about the veal thing: The main reason why veal exists is due to the milk/dairy industry. The dairy industry constantly impregnates cows so they keep making more milk, and they need to have babies to do so. When the baby cow is born and it’s a boy, it’s immediately taken from the mother (so the cows milk mostly goes back to us humans) and the boy cow is raised to become veal. Because they really have no use for them in the dairy industry…the baby girl cows will become dairy cows and make milk. So…another thing to think about if you want to boycott the veal industry, might be worth also boycotting the dairy industry, too. Back to your comment…yes, in many industries that are for-profit that end up hurting someone, whether it is a person or an animal, a lot of lies are told to justify it. I really would love to see SWTD tours become a thing of the past.

  12. Thanks so much for posting this! Love you guys!

    I actually have a dolphin post in the works myself. I have loved cetaceans for ages and took part in a dolphin swimming experience at SeaWorld in Australia in 2011. It was really weird, and not the exhilarating experience I thought it would be. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realised I had been so underwhelmed because deep down in my heart I had known that it was wrong. Now I’m an activist against the keeping of cetaceans in captivity.

    I was really disappointed that when these dolphin swims were removed from the TBEX program, some bloggers said, “It’s not fair! I wanted to go on the tour and then form my own opinion about whether it’s right or wrong!” To me that’s like saying “I’d like to murder somebody and then form my own opinion about whether it’s right or wrong”.

    • Ooh, I can’t wait to read your dolphin post! Let me know when it’s all ready to go (or I’ll discover it on my own as I read your blog regularly!). That’s a really interesting story that you did the activity and you were underwhelmed. I’m sure that yes, deep down you felt something was wrong. I think that’s the case for many people, or they watch a film like Blackfish and come to this realization. I don’t understand that opinion of the blogger….it’s as though you want to participate in some kind of torturous activity towards another being, and see if you feel bad about it afterwards. I don’t understand that kind of thinking at all. Obviously those people just don’t get it!

  13. Sofia Duncan
    | Reply

    I had no idea that these kind of tours were harmful to our beloved sweet dolphins! even those which are playing tricks.. I thought they’re being taken care of. Well I haven’t tried swimming with dolphins, with the same reason as yours.
    I’m sharing this article for the hope of getting people more exposed to what’s really happening in the world.
    Great job. :)

    • Thank you so much! I really think that most people aren’t aware of it, as so many people bring their families to these kinds of places thinking the dolphins are happy, their kids are happy…we have so many great alternatives when we’re traveling! I hope someday it would become illegal to steal animals from the ocean and sell them…

  14. Jessica Meddows
    | Reply

    Hi guys,

    Great blog post. I heard about the furore with TBEX and this program. Like you guys I don’t do these sorts of animal encounters, being vegan. It’s great that people boycott these programs, but I really wish the same people cared as much about “un-cute” animals as they did about dolphins! First steps, I guess. :)

    • One step at a time! Every little bit counts, I think. If people start thinking about how the animals’ lives are impacted by this kind of thing, hopefully it will carry over to other places as well, that type of mentality!

  15. Daniel Hancox
    | Reply

    Just starting in the blogging community i had no idea about this issue! I have no delusions that make me think humans are the pinnacle of what this amazing planet has to offer, and i am all for spending time with all kinds of amazing creatures but i react very strongly when i see cruelty and suffering in animals. So i will be avoiding these kinds of excursions and looking for much more fitting ways to experience Dolphins and whales in particular.
    Good job Lauren!


    • Lauren | Justin Plus Lauren
      | Reply

      I see so many activities that travelers take part in that are harmful to animals, or they don’t realize are cruel towards animals. I’m glad that you will be avoiding these kinds of excursions – that means a lot to me! :) There are ways to enjoy nature without disrupting it! Thanks for commenting! :)

  16. garrybry
    | Reply

    By their logic, giving tours of prisons should make us more compassionate to our fellow man . . .

    • Lauren
      | Reply

      That’s a really interesting comparison!

  17. Aperture Of My Soul
    | Reply

    I’ve always wanted to view them in the wild, but I’m not much on swimming with them. Never imagined some of the cruelty that goes on. The one dolphin I tried to pet at Seaworld as a teenager snapped at me, so I was done with that. Thanks for sharing such great information!!

    • Lauren
      | Reply

      And I’m glad that Blackfish exposed exactly how awful Seaworld is!!! I’m glad that you enjoyed this article!

  18. Mytanfeet
    | Reply

    Oh my goodness that is terribly sad. It makes me so angry to see people exploiting animals for their own greed, it’s those times that really makes me feel ashamed. The cruelty inflicted upon these beautiful and intelligent animals is just beyond words. People need to start realizing that these programs are absolutely disgusting. I remember in Cancun we took a boat to Isla Mujeres and it included petting a nurse shark and taking a picture with it. That poor thing was being held by hundreds of people and it was constantly being lifted out of the water. I’m so glad to hear Costa Rica is on this list of countries who have outlawed it though. Hooray for us! Hopefully more countries will follow suit and soon!

    • Lauren
      | Reply

      I’m glad that Costa Rica doesn’t do this either! I hope that more countries will start to ban it as well! Yes, my sister said she went on an excursion once in Mexico that had the shark experience, just the same as you! And she didn’t feel good about it either. They should put a stop to that one as well…

  19. Lisa
    | Reply

    Great post! Thanks for sharing this information! I saw the cove too and I try to think about animal activities, including elephants on land.

    • Lauren
      | Reply

      I’m so glad that you take these things into consideration when planning your animal related activities!

  20. Kathryn Burrington
    | Reply

    Great to see another blogger writing about this dreadful practice. it still amazes me how many people still think swimming with captive dolphins is OK. I was a little confused though about whether you were talking about captive dolphins or wild dolphins at first and I wandered what are your thoughts about the latter are as there are mixed opinions on that too.

  21. Tanja Burmeister
    | Reply

    Sadly the problem is, that people don’t recognize animals to be equated with themselves. Instead they see them as a source of income or an exotic travel-story and make tours to swim with captured dolphins, ride tortured elephants and pet a drugged tiger. There is no respect towards nature and it’s devastating that many people don’t realize or care that their greed is causing animals to suffer. Thank you for raising awareness about this.

  22. lavena Costa
    | Reply

    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…

  23. Evanne
    | Reply

    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!

    • Evanne
      | Reply

      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!

  24. Ahila
    | Reply

    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.

  25. […] resident – no matter how much you may want to see them! In particular, do not take part in captive dolphin swims either. Instead, go and see these animals in their natural habitat. There are many places around […]

  26. […] Swimming with dolphins: The dark truth – Justin plus Lauren […]

  27. Shasta
    | Reply

    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**

  28. Ashley Casey
    | Reply

    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?

    • Lauren
      | Reply


      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!

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