Swimming With Dolphins: Is It Love or Exploitation?

Thousands of dolphins are kept in captivity around the world, mostly for the entertainment of tourists. Certainly it’s no fun for the dolphins.

How did I spend my winter vacation? I went with my husband to Roatan, a reef-ringed tropical island off the north coast of Honduras, where we spent a lot of time sitting in the yard of our rented beach shack watching perversion in action.

I tried to ignore it, pretending it didn’t exist. But I couldn’t help observing again and again how groups of tourists were dropped into a roped-off pen where they could “swim” with dolphins. Even though this attraction is called “the ultimate dolphin encounter,” the reality is that the tourists wade with dolphins in waist-deep water. The dolphins, 19 altogether, belong to Anthony’s Key Resort and are a major tourist attraction. The dolphin lovers come by land and by sea, by the busload and by boat. The resort’s dolphin program calls itself the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences.

Like other facilities where dolphins are kept in captivity, this resort plays the science card to give a lucrative business the veneer of scientific legitimacy. “Ongoing behavioral studies and medical morphometric data has been collected since the facility opened” in 1989, according to the institute’s website. Marine scientist Dr. Naomi Rose, an activist against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, summarized this prevalent scientific cover story: “About the only thing we have learned from research of captive cetaceans is that they shouldn’t be in captivity.”

The Roatan dolphins are penned in a shallow, two-acre turquoise lagoon. The cheapest “swim” with the dolphins costs $89. Every day I watched tourists wade in the lagoon while a few dolphins swam around them and performed tricks. The dolphins did aerial flips and a stunt we came to call the moonwalk. At a signal from a trainer, a dolphin stands up in the water and propels itself backwards by vigorously moving the fluke. Any performance is rewarded with fishy treats.

One can also buy a $139 “dorsal ride” called the Action Swim. Kissing costs extra. The tourists line up and, one after another, get photographed while being “kissed” by a dolphin. The tourist bends down a bit, the trainer lifts an arm, the dolphin comes up and for a few seconds holds its bottlenose to the tourist’s face. The camera clicks, the trainer’s arm goes down, the dolphin flops back in the water. Same procedure for the next love-seeker in line until everybody gets their adorable, unforgettable picture. It’s ready for purchase when exiting through the gift shop. The dolphins get pimped and paid with fishy treats, while the resort makes a lot of money. Now is that love, or is it prostitution?

Anthony’s Key Resort even offers encounters with dolphins “in the wild.” For only $149, scuba divers can swim out into deeper waters with a trainer and two or three well-trained male dolphins who have been briefly freed from the pen. Pictures are taken. This adventure is labeled “Unstructured. Untamed. Unmatched.” The pictures give the impression that the scuba divers encountered and interacted with wild dolphins. Then it’s back into the pen.

Every day I wondered who would pay to touch, be touched, and “kissed” by a dolphin? These tourists must love dolphins, but what kind of love is that? Even the most benighted among them must have heard that being in captivity is torture for dolphins. If the Institute for Marine Sciences would convey any dolphin science to their customers, these tourists might know that at sea these highly intelligent creatures are always on the move, traveling thousands of miles, that they are complex social mammals that need a lot of space to live in, and that they have remarkable communication skills and memory. Have none of these dolphin-love-seeking tourists seen the documentary The Cove, or heard of the brutality involved when capturing dolphins?

Anthony’s Key Resort claims that most of their current dolphins were born incaptivity, but it is a well-published fact that these breeding programs do nothing but secure more dolphins to perform clownish tricks. The tourists who claim to love dolphins and want to be kissed by them don’t seem to care. The dolphins I watched every day were unable to hunt, roam, mate, communicate, and play as they would in the wild. Yet Teri Bolton, the head trainer at Anthony’s Key Resort, defends the pen as a suitable habitat. “We feel this is the closest to keeping things as natural as possible,” she said one day, standing at the edge of the pen. “You’re getting a window into how these animals really are.” Here’s how these animals really are: Without trainers or tourists present, the dolphins never did any tricks just for the fun of it.

Some answers to this clueless tourist behavior can be found on the internet, where people ask if they should swim with the dolphins at Anthony’s Key Resort. They try to justify their desire, saying that the fence of this dolphin enclosure is so low, the dolphins could jump over it if they wanted to, and therefore they’re staying in captivity by free will. These people argue that the Roatan dolphins are not in a tank, but penned in a part of the ocean, which is their natural environment. One can only hope that the answers these people got straightened them out. One contributor to the discussion said, “Dolphins are social creatures. Jumping over the fence would mean to leave the females and their babies. Besides, by now they are used to captivity with three meals a day. Jumping over the fence would be like asking you to jump out of a spaceship alone onto Mars.”

Nobody I talked to on the island was in favor of the dolphin program. Local dive shops actively discouraged tourists from going there. Yes, it’s impossible to rescue these dolphins because they would not survive in the wild. Yes, an ocean pen is not quite as bad as a tank. But patronizing any institution that keeps dolphins in captivity means supporting the concept of captivity. It’s like buying ivory or wearing a leopard fur coat and then justifying it by saying it’s OK because the animals were already dead.

It’s estimated that there are between 2,000 and 3,600 dolphins in captivity worldwide. More than 5,000 have died in their prisons. Some committed suicide by simply sinking to the bottom and not coming up for air. A dolphin in the wild has an average life expectancy of about 50 years, while a dolphin in captivity lives on average a mere five years.

Anthony’s Key Resort prides itself on its pod’s one living grandmother, age 45, one of the first dolphins they captured in the wild. One such granny does not change the situation.

It’s really very simple: You cannot buy love, and if you try to buy dolphin love, you hurt the ones you love. While many claim that dolphin encounters are therapeutic and provide healing qualities, the opposite is true for the supposed healers.

While watching the dolphins getting fed and trained with long poles, I kept thinking it could be worse. This dolphin craze has led to some truly spectacular perversions. For instance, an institution called DAWN, the Dolphin Attended Water and Natural Birth Center, enables human women to give birth in water in the presence of dolphins.

“Every culture in the world has fantastical dolphin myths. There is, however, not a single tale where dolphins were caught, slaughtered, or kept in captivity.”

We spent many tropical nights discussing how and why this dolphin craze started. Dr. John Lilly was the first who came to mind. Lilly was a neuroscientist who pioneered the research into the dolphin brain, which is 40 percent larger than the human brain. He suspected that dolphins were at least as smart as humans and that it should be possible to communicate with them. In the late ’50s, with generous grants from NASA and other sources, he opened the Communication Research Institute on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. Unfortunately, instead of trying to understand “Dolphinese,” Lilly believed dolphins were capable of mimicking human speech, and so he tried to teach them to speak English. Sex, drugs, and possibly rock ’n roll were involved in the research. Not only did he inject dolphins with LSD, but one of his assistants flooded her apartment and roomed with a dolphin and, well, they went a little further than kissing.

In 2014 the BBC did a documentary about their work called The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins.

In 1961 Lilly was at the first meeting of the group that called itself, in his honor, the Order of the Dolphin. Later the organization became Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). At the time, UFOs were all the rage, but Lilly and company couldn’t find any aliens from outer space. So they turned to the next best thing: dolphins. Lilly eventually lost his funding. While his experiments were an ethical and scientific failure—and he’s now seen as a brilliant yet mad scientist—he did prompt many large-scale efforts to protect dolphins. Yet he also jump-started the misguided desire to interact too closely with these lovable, intelligent mammals.

My husband argued that we should give Lilly only part of the credit. Already in antiquity, long before anybody knew anything about the complexity of the dolphin brain, these mammals were associated with mythical powers. The Romans and Greeks incorporated dolphins in many tales as companions of the gods, saviors of the drowning, life-long friends to mortal men. Images of dolphins were found in the Palace of Knossos in Crete dating to 1600 BC. But it is mostly the writing of the ancient Greek poets where we can learn the various myths of the dolphins. In Roman literature, dolphins were known to carry souls to the Isles of the Blessed. Every culture in the world has fantastical dolphin myths. There is, however, not a single tale where dolphins were caught, slaughtered, or kept in captivity. To harm a dolphin in any way, even accidentally, was to invite extreme bad luck.

The Roatan dolphins reminded us of the eternal human fascination with dolphins and why they are seen as magical beings. They are so much like us and yet so different. They are creatures with feelings and needs. We should remember and respect that. We have no right to incarcerate intelligent beings for our puny pleasure. A dolphin’s smile has nothing to do with mirth, just as a dolphin’s kiss has nothing to do with love.

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