Swimming with dolphins is as old as myth—the Greeks told tales of these creatures carrying shipwrecked sailors to safety. But only in the past two decades have marine parks offered us the chance to frolic with Flipper. There are now at least 19 swim-with-the-dolphins programs in this country and some 30 in the Caribbean—though not without controversy. Regent Seven Seas Cruises recently canceled its dolphin encounters, citing concerns about the animals, and conservationists have been against the idea from the start. Here, both sides of the issue:
What The Proponents Say
Dolphin programs—whether participants receive a fishy "kiss" or hold on for a ride—are safe, as long as a trainer controls the interaction carefully, according to a study by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Not only that, such programs create a "profound emotional connection" that inspires people to care about the preservation of animals in the wild, says Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. ammpa-accredited facilities provide dolphins with top-quality food, veterinary care, and refuge from the hazards they’d face in the ocean—pollutants, boat strikes, and larger predators. Their keepers give them more than enough diversion and challenges.
To those who think dolphins prefer to roam the oceans, Billy Hurley, general manager of Marineland, in St. Augustine, Florida, is blunt: "It’s anthropomorphic to believe that dolphins are cruising the big blue because they enjoy it." They’re looking for food, he says, and when there’s plenty close at hand, they happily stay put.
The Opposing View
Life in a tank or sea pen is severely understimulating for an animal that is as intelligent as a human toddler and accustomed to swimming 40 miles a day and diving hundreds of feet—which is why Brazil, Italy, and the U.K. have banned interactive marine-mammal programs. Plus, getting in the water with these predators can be unsafe. Some participants in dolphin encounters have received bites and broken bones, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which, along with the World Society for the Protection of Animals, is against dolphin-swim programs. There have also been reports of dolphins in parks and aquariums suffering from poor water quality and neglect, and of people feeding french fries and bottle caps to the animals in petting pools. It’s increasingly difficult to know which parks have these problems, since federal oversight of marine-mammal interactive programs was cut dramatically in 1999. So don’t trust the dolphin’s "smile"—it’s just an anatomical quirk and no reflection of the animal’s state of mind.
The Bottom Line
If you don’t have ethical problems with the whole idea of penning intelligent wild creatures, choose a trainer-led program in the U.S. or another country with animal-welfare laws—those accredited by the AMMPA are a good bet.