Yuko Shimizu In a quandary over swimming with dolphins.
| Credit: Yuko Shimizu

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.

From the Proponents:
Sure, tanks and sea pens don't provide as much stimulation for dolphins as living in the wild, but according to Billy Hurley, a marine scientist and general manager for Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida, dedicated trainers can give the animals plenty of diversion and challenge. As he quipped to a recent group of visitors at Marineland, "If we feed 'em, we don't eat 'em, and we don't beat 'em–it's home to them." Animal expert Jack Hanna argues that a less beautiful, intelligent and sociable animal isn't as likely to sell the public on the importance of protecting the seas. Dolphins are what he calls a "flagship species"–one that helps promote conservation for less glamorous organisms, such as plankton, that are vital to its natural habitat. Hanna, who wrangles manatees and baby cheetahs on television programs like the Late Show with David Letterman and is also director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, maintains that an animal's appeal matters. "If you don't love something, you're not going to save something," he says. Swim with the dolphin programs "bring the love that much closer."

From the Opponents:
"Even in the largest captive facilities, a dolphin is restricted to less than one ten-thousandth of its natural range," the Humane Society of the United States and the World Society for the Protection of Animals jointly state. In the wild, these animals can swim 40 to 50 miles a day and dive hundreds of feet deep. Dolphins travel in pods–complex social groupings–and often form lifelong bonds. And while humans can provide some degree of stimulation, this pales in comparison to the ocean, says Toni Frohoff, a marine scientist and consultant for animal welfare groups. She reports that in her many visits to marine facilities, she's seen dolphins circling endlessly in their pens and exhaling in short repetitive bursts called "chuffing," behaviors her research has determined to be signs of stress and boredom. What captive dolphins do when we're not interacting with them may, in fact, be most interesting. Amy Samuels, a marine scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has observed dolphins at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo swimming in elaborate synchronized formations, extending a flipper toward each other in a gesture she calls "gentle rubbing." This would mean focusing dolphin encounters on the animal's wild behavior, and not on such tricks as "painting" abstract art. Samuels comments, "It would help if aquariums had programs that spent time interpreting who the animals really are."

Although 60 percent of the dolphins in U.S. programs are born in captivity, the rest are caught in the wild, which has animal activists up in arms. Tursiops truncatus (or bottlenose dolphins), the species used in the vast majority of interactive programs, is not endangered in most places, but its method of capture has raised concerns. Animal welfare groups and the marine park industry disagree about whether this practice can ever be humane. Still, the process of netting a single dolphin and lifting it into a boat is unquestionably preferable to the mass drive fisheries practiced in Japan and other parts of the globe.

Some countries–including Mexico, Nicaragua, Australia, China, Malaysia, the Phillippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Chile–have placed bans in their waters on the capture of dolphins for public display. And while it's technically legal to capture dolphins in the U.S., the practice has all but ceased (the last capture permit was issued in 1989). The marine park industry in this country, perhaps sensitive to public outcry, is making every effort to replenish dolphin stocks through captive breeding programs.