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Swimming With Dolphins: Reasons to Avoid This Cruel Tourism Attraction

A few years ago, a “Swimming with Dolphins” excursion was offered at a popular travel blogger conference, TBEX. It caused quite a stir, and with good reason. Swimming with dolphins is cruel and one of the animal tourist attractions to avoid. So, why was this activity offered at a travel blogging conference in Cancun as a tour option for travel writers to promote?

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Many bloggers wrote letters, blog posts (as I did, writing this blog post originally back in 2014) and signed petitions opposed to the dolphin swim. We urged TBEX to cut ties with Delphinus Dolphinarium. Many travel writers vowed to boycott the conference entirely until the tours were axed from the itinerary.

Swimming With Dolphins

Finally, after lots of pressure, the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that they were 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?

Swimming With Dolphins is Cruel

Swimming With Dolphins is Cruel

Let’s face it. Tourists who visit destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean and book swimming tours with captive dolphins tend to be animal lovers. In most situations, these travelers love animals or find dolphins to be fascinating creatures. They want to get up close to them and share a special moment with this beloved animal.

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 to learn more about them. As a lifelong vegetarian, longtime vegan, and animal lover, I didn’t realize what was wrong with these tourist traps until shortly after I went vegan. 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 these 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?

Why Swimming With Dolphins Is Bad

Why Swimming With Dolphins Is Bad

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.

Some may argue that swimming with dolphins is therapeutic. However, 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, please take great care to be a responsible pet owner.

Where Do The Dolphins Come From?

Dolphins forced to perform

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.

What About Swimming With Wild Dolphins?

Swimming With Wild Dolphins

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.

Some Hawaiian wild dolphin swims actually target dolphins that have little choice but to tolerate human presence. Swimming away into the surrounding areas puts them in threatening situations with their natural predators.

Furthermore, interactions with people cause dolphins to lose their natural wariness, making them easy targets for attacks by sharks. There are no circumstances where SWTD tours can be more ethical or humane.

Ethical Wildlife Tours

Dolphin watching tours

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 dolphin tours – Chile, Costa Rica, Hungary, and India. New Zealand has also recently banned swimming with dolphins, and Canada bans keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. (Now, if only Canada would ban places like Ripley’s Aquarium, too!).

These excursions are incredibly popular in Mexico, the Caribbean, the United States, Ireland, Australia, Cuba, and Israel. They are also very popular with cruise lines, with most tropical destination cruises offering dolphin swim tours.

I’d love to see cruise lines do away with them. Of course, I’d love to see these programs retired completely and move the dolphins to marine sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives without being forced to swim with people and do tricks.

Ways to See Dolphins Ethically

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. We’ve also gone whale watching in Iceland, and it was an amazing experience.

More Responsible Wildlife Tourism Experiences

If you’re looking for more responsible wildlife experiences, I have an entire section about it on this travel blog! I recommend booking ethical wildlife safaris, snorkeling tours, and intriguing once in a lifetime experiences like viewing the glowworms in New Zealand.

If you really love animals, why not volunteer overseas to help them? I’ve taken two international volunteer trips to help animals so far: at a wildlife rescue center in Guatemala, and at a wildlife conservancy in Kenya.

The Dolphin SMART Program

Dolphin SMART is a program developed by the NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and National Marine Fisheries Service, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and the Dolphin Ecology Project.

The purpose of the program is to minimize the harassment of dolphins from commercial tours, reduce close interactions with wild dolphins to protect them, eliminate advertising these kinds of activities, and promote the protection of our waterways. SMART stands for:

  • S – Stay back 50 yards from dolphins
  • M – Move away cautiously if dolphins show signs of disturbance
  • A – Always put engine in neutral when dolphins are present
  • R – Refrain from touching, feeding, or swimming with dolphins
  • T – Teach others to be dolphin smart

Please keep this in mind when you plan your future tours and excursions, especially if they involve dolphins and marine wildlife. It’s a good idea to consider the animals when planning animal focused activities.

Ask the right questions. Are we admiring animals from afar in their natural habitat? Are the animals living in unnatural situations? Do the animals 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. It’s up to us to stop funding them with our tourism dollars, and to start funding responsible wildlife attractions.

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Lisi

Saturday 17th of April 2021

Thanks for sharing this!! I love animals, especially dolphins.. when I was a child I went to a zoo that had also dolphins. Back than I was not aware of the fact that those animals are suffering. Nowadays I'm more mindful and would not participate or support those kind of animals shows.

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?

Lauren

Friday 1st of March 2019

Ashley,

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!

Shasta

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**

Ahila

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.

Evanne

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!

Evanne

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!

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