What's wrong with swimming with dolphins?

(c) iStockphoto.com/Karen Roach

On the surface, swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) programs seem like a fun, safe way to get up close and personal with these fascinating creatures of the sea. The dolphins appear to smile as they pull laughing children around swimming pools by their dorsal fins. But you don't have to look too deep beneath this whimsical façade to realize that there is something fundamentally wrong with all swim-with-the-dolphin programs.

Regardless of what country they are located in, how crystal blue the water is, whether the trainers claim that their dolphins are allowed to "swim free" for a couple hours per day, or how much money park owners spend caring for their charges, swim-with-dolphin programs create a threatening environment for the dolphins - and sometimes their human visitors.

FAQs about dolphins in captivity >>

The sad truth behind Swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) programs

Swim-with-the-dolphin programs allow visitors to pet captive dolphins in shallow pools or interact with them in deeper water by swimming beside them or being towed around by holding onto the dolphin's dorsal fin. Currently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not regulate SWTD programs, and as a result, record keeping concerning human injuries and dolphin deaths are often not complete, with countless dolphin deaths going unreported.

Dolphins have been on the earth for thousands of years. They are perfectly evolved to live and flourish in their wild ocean home, not within the confines of a human-made concrete tank or artificial lagoon. Statistics of dolphin deaths during capture and confinement prove that dolphins do not belong in captivity. Consider the fact that Sea World, one of the most recognized captive dolphin facilities in the U.S., reported 93 dolphin deaths between 1971 and 2002. That's an average of 3 dolphins per year, assuming that all dolphin deaths were accounted for. If these numbers were extrapolated to include the total number of captive dolphin facilities around the world, the number of dolphin deaths as a result of captivity in the last 30 years would be astronomical!

Wild vs. captive

Wild dolphins can swim over 40 miles a day, they engage in mating, foraging, fighting and play behavior with their pod members and they use their echolocation to explore their diverse ocean environment.

In contrast, captive dolphins are forced to swim in endless circles in artificial habitats, interact with unfamiliar dolphins and other species, eat dead fish, and perform behaviors that are unnatural and in some cases painful. Captive dolphins also face exposure to human infection and bacteria, chemicals such as chlorine, and suffer from stress-related illnesses.

Things to look for at captive dolphin shows and facilities

  • Dolphins poking their head above water: Captive dolphins spend up to 80% of their time at the surface of the water seeking scraps of food and attention. This is in direct contrast to wild dolphins who spend 80% of their time below the surface of the water playing, hunting and exploring.

  • Beaching themselves as part of the show so that visitors can pet or kiss them: If left in this position for an extended period, a dolphin's immense weight on land would slowly crush its internal organs. Captive dolphins have been trained to ignore their natural instincts; wild dolphins never voluntarily beach themselves.

  • Vocalizing for food rewards and nodding their head as if to say "yes" or "no" and offering "handshakes" or waving at the audience with their pectoral fins: Dolphins are trained through food deprivation. When they successfully perform a trick they are rewarded with scraps of fish. If a captive dolphin waves to you, it is because it is hungry, plain and simple.

  • Swimming in circles or constantly peering through the fences (stereotypical behavior) or floating listlessly on the surface of the water: These behaviors indicate that the animal is bored and psychologically stressed. Wild dolphins rarely lie still and with the entire ocean at their disposal, they would have no need to swim in circles!

All of the above are unnatural behaviors consistently exhibited by captive dolphins. Dolphins perform these behaviors because they have been trained to do so using "positive reinforcements" - the captivity industry's politically correct term for food deprivation. They wave to the audience and kiss the trainer because they are hungry, not because they desire human interaction and sadly, they often float motionless in their tanks between shows because they are bored or lonely.

It's ok to use captive-born dolphins, right? Wrong. While countless dolphins are still ripped from the wild to populate SWTD facilities, some programs use captive-born animals instead. They hold up their use of captive-born dolphins like a trophy, proof of their mission to conserve dolphins. The truth of the matter is that captive breeding programs offer no contribution to the conservation of wild dolphin populations, acting instead to replenish the industry's dolphins when supplies run low. The fact is, whether born in captivity or pulled from the ocean, all dolphins share the same physiological and psychological needs.

Setting a bad example

Unfortunately, the commercial success of SWTD programs and the high profile of the larger facilities in the U.S. have spawned a legion of copycat operations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Latin America and around the world. These operations are the driving force behind a sharp rise in dolphin captures from the wild. Many of these new SWTD programs lack the necessary funds and staff to properly care for the dolphins.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the SWTD industry is the misconception it perpetuates among the general public. SWTD programs present themselves as "educational" and "eco-friendly". They market themselves to people who love dolphins, care about conservation and are looking for a tangible way to express this interest. What SWTD participants don't realize is that by patronizing these programs, they are not only contributing to this expanding, profit-driven industry, but they are ensuring that dolphins will continue to be captured from the wild and suffer in captivity.

Love dolphins? Don't buy a ticket! Untold numbers of dolphins die during the notoriously violent wild captures. These captures are carried out in secret - far from the public's eye - so obtaining an accurate number of dolphins killed is nearly impossible. What we do know is that the whole process is so traumatic that mortality rates of dolphins captured from the wild shoot up six-fold in the first five days of confinement. To the captivity industry, these numbers are accepted as standard operating expenses, but if this information was printed on SWTD brochures, it is unlikely that any person who cares about dolphins would purchase a ticket.

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