Why You Shouldn’t Swim With the Dolphins This Summer

I just got back from vacation in Hawaii. Poor me, right? While there, I ran across the same tired summertime ads targeting animal-loving tourists looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure swimming with dolphins. Slick and pretty, these are the glossy brochures that try hard to convince you that their swim-with-the-dolphins (SWTD) experience is different –– it's not the animal welfare travesty you might have heard it is. 

Safe? Humane? 

Safe? Humane? 

Don’t believe those people who talk trash about our industry, they say. “Our 'sanctuary' is different.” "Ours aren't wild caught dolphins." “We only take in abused and neglected dolphins.” “Our dolphins are retired military dolphins.” Or this one: “Our dolphins really do want to be here. In fact, whenever we’ve opened the pens up for them they’ve always elected to come back on their own.” 

All may well be true –– albeit in a tiny minority of cases. Indeed, theirs may be one in a hundred that tries hard to do right. But their bottom line speaks truest of all: If they’re charging money for the privilege of our patronage, they’re feeding an industry that survives on the inhumane capture and captivity of wild animals for the infotainment of people who should know better (i.e., us).

After all, most educated Americans know that dolphins and whales (cetaceans) are NOT meant to live in captivity –– much less swim with well-to-do children and affluent honeymooners in the name of “eco-friendliness,” “animal rehabilitation,” “education,”and even so-called “dolphin therapy” for special needs children –– just so they can bring in the big bucks.

If we think hard about it (and most of us admittedly don’t want to), these animals are made available for our family’s education expressly because we're willing to pay for the privilege. It doesn’t take much to recognize that if people like us didn’t harbor a deep and abiding need to commune with animals (albeit artificially), these animals would be living in the wild instead.

Oh, the irony. 

But I get it. We still want our children to “develop a deep and profound admiration” for these animals. So we’re willing to break a few eggs in the name of “hands on” education. As if our kids aren’t smart enough to learn to respect animals without kissing them in a pool. As if special needs children require the magical presence of dolphins (over horses or dogs, for example) before they can make great strides in their recovery. 

In case you’re still unconvinced, here’s a quick list detailing why most animal welfare-minded people come down hard against this practice:

  • Dolphins are uniquely ill-suited to confinement. They’re highly social creatures that live in large pods and travel forty-plus miles a day. 80% of that time is spent beneath the surface of the water. SWTD facilities can never measure up. 
  • SWTD facilities in the US are not well regulated. They are not USDA regulated, as other animal facilities are. They operate under oversight by APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) whose standards leave huge loopholes that have been widely criticized by mainstream organizations like the World Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Here’s APHIS’s extremely limited  veterinary guidelines, in case you want a look-see.
  • With the explosion of the SWTD industry over the past twenty or so years, the global trade in wild-caught dolphins has grown tremendously. Even if the facility you elect to use claims to rely on captive-bred animals alone, your dollars are nonetheless effectively supporting a global trade in wild animals taken from their pods in typically violent ways. Watch the documentary, The Cove if you want to get a feel for this. 

Yet the popularity of these places seems to be expanding. If the pervasive ads in upscale  magazines and newspapers isn't enough to prove it, just Google, “Is swimming with the dolphins humane?” In your results you’ll get a long list of resources telling you why it’s not humane. On the skinny Google Ads column to the right you’ll be treated to the counter-argument: A list of ads for swim-with-the-dolphins venues. 

Which begs the question: If swimming with the dolphins is viewed so overwhelmingly as a bad thing, why do educated, animal-loving people continue to patronize these places. Why is it that people who obviously love dolphins and care about their welfare don’t seem to understand that SWTD = BAD?  

The answer has to do with the SWTD industry’s aggressive way of promoting itself as animal- and eco-friendly. By aligning itself with larger industry players (SeaWorld, et al) and local tourism councils, this fledgling industry has managed to glom onto the large marine parks’ broad national platform and garner grassroots support for the economic benefits it brings small tourism-based communities.  

Sigh … What’s worse than actually confining these animals, training them to do your bidding, and contributing to the devastation of their species? Training us that, in so doing, we’re doing dolphins a favor, the oceans a kindness, and our communities a service.

Of course, you’re free to believe whatever you want. But why not investigate further before you decide?

  • The Cove: This Oscar-winning documentary described a massive dolphin round-up and massacre for sale to marine parks and SWTD facilities as well as for slaughter and sale in Japanese supermarkets.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): For primarily environmental reasons, NOAA stands against SWTD facilities. This PDF, however, details many of the negative animal behavior issues associated with captivity in SWTD facilities.
  • Blackfish: This Oscar-nominated documentary describes how marine parks spin the truth behind keeping Orcas in captivity. More inspiring than depressing, actually. This movie helped turn me into one of those crazy protesters in front of my own Miami Seaquarium. Free Lolita!