The Alarming Truth About “Swim with the Dolphins” Programs

Swimming with Dolphins

Story at-a-glance -

  • From the outside looking in, swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) programs appear to be a fun, safe opportunity for people to interact with one of the most appealing animals on the planet, the dolphin.
  • Upon closer inspection, however, like so many wild animal attractions designed by humans for humans, SWTD programs are bad news for dolphins (and they’re not all that safe for people, either). Dolphins are uniquely unsuited to captivity for a variety of reasons including their social structure and natural drive to swim long distances, dive down hundreds of feet, and spend most of their time underwater.
  • SWTD attractions in countries outside the U.S. pose an even bigger problem due to lack of regulation and poor conditions. Abuses include dolphins kept in small pools surrounded by jagged, rusty fences or near sewage outfalls, diets of rotten fish, disease, and starvation.
  • Wild SWTD programs are also a bad idea. Studies show that the presence of tourist boats and swimmers among wild dolphin populations is incredibly stressful for the animals, preventing them from resting, feeding, and caring for their young.
  • If you’re interested in the welfare of dolphins and want to help, avoid SWTD programs, and also consider avoiding resorts, cruise lines and other businesses that promote the exploitation of dolphins for entertainment purposes.

By Dr. Becker

In recent years, “swim-with-the-dolphin” adventures have become increasingly popular with resort-goers and vacationers visiting tropical ports aboard cruise ships.

If you don’t think too deeply about it, a swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) experience may seem like a unique, harmless way to get an up-close look at some of the world’s most intelligent, fun-loving sea mammals.

But what many people don’t know or haven’t considered is that most attractions designed to expose humans to wild creatures don’t enhance the lives of the animals involved. Sadly, this includes the SWTD industry. And not only are these programs bad for dolphins, they aren’t entirely safe for people, either.

Dolphins Are Exceptionally Incompatible with Captive Environments

Dolphins have evolved to live and thrive as wild sea mammals -- not within the confines of an exhibition tank or a sea pen built into an artificial lagoon.

Dolphins in the wild live in large groups called pods, often in close family units. Social bonds are meaningful and long lasting -- sometimes for a lifetime. Captive dolphins, on the other hand, spend their lives interacting with a handful of unfamiliar dolphins that appear and disappear at the whim of the humans running the show.

Wild dolphins often travel long distances each day. They may swim in a straight line for a hundred miles, move along a coastline for several miles and then swim back to their starting point, or they may spend several hours or days in a certain spot. Dolphins living in captivity swim in a circle around a tank or within the small confines of some other artificial habitat. Caged dolphins are often seen swimming around and around in their tanks, peering through the glass or other barricade, or floating listlessly on the water’s surface. These behaviors indicate boredom and psychological stress.

In the ocean, dolphins can dive down several hundred feet and can remain underwater for 15 minutes or more. They spend only a small amount of time – 10 to 20 percent – on the surface. Captive dolphins, sadly, spend up to 80 percent of their time at the surface of the water waiting for food or attention.

According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS):

"The sea is to dolphins much as the air is to birds—it is a three-dimensional environment, where they can move up and down and side to side. But dolphins don't stop to perch. They never come to shore. Dolphins are always swimming, even when they "sleep." They are always aware, and always moving.

Understanding this, it is difficult to imagine the tragedy of life in captivity for these ocean creatures."

Imprisoning Wildlife for the ‘Benefit’ of Humans

There are from 14 to 18 swim-with-the-dolphin attractions in the U.S. The marketing of these programs promotes the experience as “eco-friendly” and “educational.”

There are also so-called “dolphin-assisted therapy” programs for children and adults with disorders like Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, head and spinal injuries, or cancer. In fact, there is no scientific data to indicate that interacting with dolphins has any greater therapeutic benefit than programs involving dogs, horses, or other domesticated animals. As the HSUS accurately points out, “There is no need to imprison wildlife to benefit humans.”

Swim-with-the-dolphins operations in other countries pose an even bigger problem due to lack of regulation and poor conditions. Abuses cited by the HSUS include overworked pregnant female dolphins; dolphins kept in small pools surrounded by jagged, rusty fences or near sewage outfalls; diets of rotten fish; disease; and starvation. 

Most SWTD programs outside the U.S. capture their dolphins from the wild. Not only is this practice extremely traumatic for wild dolphins, often resulting in a life-threatening condition known as capture stress or capture myopathy, it can also have a negative impact on the pods from which the dolphins are taken.

SWTD Programs Pose Health Risks to Both Humans and Dolphins

Some captive dolphins will attempt to assimilate to their environment by looking to humans to take on the roles normally filled by other dolphins in the pod. Some of the behaviors noted include submission or sexual aggression around humans, as well as agitation and aggressive behavior resulting from the stress of forced interaction.

These behaviors can result in serious danger to swimmers, and in fact, SWTD programs have reported injuries to humans including tooth rakes, lacerations, broken bones, internal injuries and shock.

For the dolphins, unnatural exposure to people can result in human bacterial and viral infections, and stress-related conditions like ulcers.

Swimming with Wild Dolphins Is Also a Bad Idea

A study conducted in 2010 of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Tanzania1 found that SWTD programs in the wild are also highly traumatic for the dolphins, preventing them from resting, feeding, and caring for their young. Tourists swimming very close and trying to touch the dolphins proved incredibly stressful for the animals.

A group of researchers from Newcastle University in the U.K. observed the wild dolphins for 40 days. They discovered that when tourist boats were present, the time the dolphins spent resting dropped from 38 percent to 10 percent, while the time they spent foraging and socializing dropped from 19 and 10 percent to 10 and 4 percent, respectively. At the same time, the dolphins’ traveling behavior more than doubled, from 33 to 77 percent.

“Overall, the dolphins are using more energy than they are taking in because they aren’t resting or feeding as much but are swimming more as they try to avoid the tourist boats,” says Dr. Per Berggren, one of the researchers from the School of Marine Science and Technology at Newcastle University.

Clearly, wild SWTD attractions cause psychological distress to the dolphins – effects that are not immediately apparent to participants of the programs.

How You Can Help

First, understand that regardless of the promotional pitch, SWTD programs can’t possibly be “eco-friendly” when dolphins are forced to live in captivity, violently captured in the wild, and/or forced into interactions with humans.

As for the “educational” aspect of these programs, children (and adults) can learn all about dolphins through pictures, books, documentaries, educational TV shows, and other media. There’s no need to get within kissing distance of a wild creature to learn about it, and despite all the footage you’ve seen of dolphins appearing to enjoy performing for humans or swimming with them, it’s a mostly false image designed to draw ticket buyers to dolphin attractions.

Secondly, rest assured that a portion of the money you spend at a captive-bred dolphin attraction (typically $100 to $300 for a 15-minute swim) will inevitably go to fund the capture of wild dolphins taken from their pods. The SWTD business has seen enormous growth over the last 20 years, and the global trade in wild dolphins has grown right along with it.

And lastly, from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA):

"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."

Additional reading:

Quantitative Behavioral Study of Bottlenose Dolphins in Swim-with-the-Dolphin Programs in the United States

Effects of tourist boats on the behaviour of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins off the south coast of Zanzibar

+ Sources and References