6 reasons why you should NEVER swim with dolphins

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(Last updated on: 15/12/2020)

You should never swim with dolphins in captivity. This in an unethical form of wildlife tourism that is cruel to the dolphins. Yes, you might get some cool photos, heck- you can even get these printed onto a key ring or the mug that you use for your morning coffee each day! You can be reminded each and everyday of your swimming with dolphins experience… of how YOU contributed to those poor animals’ unhappiness. Who in their right mind would want to do that?

The problem is, that most tourists are ignorant. They don’t know what goes on behind the scenes (why would they?) and they unknowingly contribute to the animals’ maltreatment and unhappiness. That’s why I have taken it upon myself to write this article- to teach people why they should never swim with dolphins.

Before I start, I would like to make a small disclaimer- I have swam with dolphins. I did it back in 2013 whilst travelling in Mexico. I think deep down I knew it was bad, but everyone was doing it at the time. I know, I know, that it no excuse. But the problem was (and in many instances still is) that us tourists don’t know any different. Nowadays there is much more awareness of the ethical issues in tourism. We are much more considerate towards animals as a society and sustainability is at the forefront of our minds. Times have changed, for the good. So, now that I know better, I am going to tell you why you should NEVER swim with dolphins…

The swimming with dolphin industry

white and gray dolphin on blue water never swim with dolphins
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The swimming with dolphin industry is pretty big. Especially prominent in Mexico, the Caribbean and the US, amongst other countries, there are plenty of establishments that provide tourists with the opportunity to swim with dolphins.

You will most commonly found dolphins kept in aquariums. Here they will be found in tanks, which are usually far too small. A dolphin will swim an average of 40 miles each day in the wild, but they will swim only a fraction of this in a tank.

This natural environment introduces the animals other wildlife and humans that they would not usually interact with. And it often requires them to ‘perform’ for the tourists. Doing tricks, allowing tourists to hand onto their fins and interacting with large numbers of people is not pleasant for the dolphin- how would you feel if you were taken from your natural habitat and made to perform in a cage?! What’s more, is that these activities often cause the dolphins pain.

There are thousands of dolphins in that are kept in captivity around the world, some of which are cared for better than others. However, dolphins belong in the wild. And they were not put on this earth to entertain us humans! Physical detriments of captivity include sun exposure, poor water quality, skin wounds and fin flop. The dolphins have limited space and unfamiliar groupings.

How to tell when dolphins are in distress

More often than not, dolphins that are kept in captivity show signs of distress. Here are some things that indicate the animals are unhappy:

Keeping their head above water: This is not a natural behaviour. On average, dolphins in the wild spend 80% of their time beneath the surface. However, this figure is reversed for animals in captivity, with dolphins keeping their head above water for 80% of the time.

Swimming in circles: Dolphins do this when they are bored. It could also indicate that they are psychologically stressed.

Beaching themselves: Tourists want to hug and kiss dolphins, so many of these animals are trained to lay on their sides to give people the opportunity to show their affection. However, this can actually be damaging to the dolphin and is not an instinctual behaviour. Laying in such a position for a prolonged period of time can damage the internal organs.

Performing for food: If a dolphin is waving, shaking hands, nodding etc before being given the reward of food, it means that it is suffering from food deprivation. Trainers use this method to get the dolphins to do what the tourists want to see (I.e. a show), but it is hugely unethical.

grey dolphin on water in selective focus photography never swim with dolphins
Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

Why you should never swim with dolphins

Below, I have summarised the six main reasons why you should not swim with dolphins. Trust me, you will only feel bad about it if you do it (gosh- I feel terrible). So here goes- the reasons why you should never swim with dolphins…

Dolphins in captivity have been taken from the wild

When it comes to swimming with dolphins, they’re already in captivity. This in itself is something which many people argue against – that all animals should be in the wild without question. That is definitely a grey area. Captivity allows for conservation and breeding in many cases, and has its merits.

However, them being in captivity is definitely a reason why you shouldn’t swim with dolphins. They are in an unnatural environment, which is much smaller than the space they would have in the wild. Often the pools are concrete, meaning their sonar communication (how they talk to other dolphins) doesn’t work.

black dolphin in body of water never swim with dolphins
Photo by Joe Boyne on Pexels.com

The pools are chemically treated too. In the wild, nobody would be swimming with dolphins. They’d be living their natural lives, undisturbed by humans. 

Often, too, these dolphins have been separated from their families to be put in captivity for human enjoyment. There are scenarios where dolphins are illegally captured to be sold to the types of parks that offer dolphin-swimming experiences. When this happens, the dolphins deemed to be ‘less attractive’ are slaughtered and sold for meat.

Even if you opt for the much less common experience of swimming with dolphins in the wild, it’s still not an enjoyable experience for these majestic creatures. In places like Zanzibar, where spotting dolphins is a huge tourism draw, up to 30 boats a day will invade a dolphin pod. Swimmers will jump off the boats and try to make contact with these wild dolphins.

However, this is counterproductive as it stresses the dolphins in their natural habitat! This will eventually will lead to them leaving the area and resettling somewhere else. With dolphin-spotting being such a big attraction in Zanzibar, if there are no dolphins then tourism will likely dwindle…better tourism development planning is clearly needed…

Many dolphin facilities are dangerous 

For dolphins in captivity, it can be dangerous. Put aside the ethical questions as to whether wild animals should be taken from their natural habitat and enclosed for human entertainment – some of these places just aren’t safe.

Learn why dolphins may attack people in this Nat Geo video clip.

News site The Dodo featured an article in 2015 about the truth behind all of this – and why you should never swim with dolphins. They spoke with a trainer who worked at two ‘swim with dolphins’ facilities in the Caribbean. This is what they said:

“Because they didn’t have a vet or any type of veterinary care at [this particular] facility, the dolphins would swallow things, and there would be nothing you could do about it,” he says. Though he witnessed the enclosed pens being cleaned, he claims the smell of the chlorine was so strong, it would “choke” the trainers – and that some of the animals eventually went blind because of its use.

He goes on to mention that over 40 dolphins were spread across just three ‘cells’. He says that many dolphins suffered from psychosis. Of course, this isn’t safe for the dolphins or for the many humans they are forced to interact with on a daily basis.

DID YOU KNOW: at Loro Parque, Tenerife, the ‘water work’ staff (those who actually enter the water with the dolphins) have to carry a cylinder with them at all times containing 5 minutes worth of oxygen in case of emergencies. This goes to show that not even the trainers are safe, and dolphin captivity is a dangerous business. 

Dolphins aren’t actually smiling in the photos you see

pexels-photo-225869.jpeg never swim with dolphins
Photo by HAMID ELBAZ on Pexels.com

By now, most people will have seen a photo of a person in a wetsuit posing and grinning with a dolphin in a pool. And, typically, this dolphin will look like they’re smiling at the camera too. It’s cute, and many people see it as a great keepsake from a holiday full of happy memories.

But it’s important to know that the dolphins aren’t actually smiling. This is just the shape of their face! It’s an illusion created by genetics, and they look like that regardless of how they’re actually feeling.

As mentioned in the first point on this list, dolphins at water parks have often been torn away from they family and natural habitat – either that, or they were born into captivity and have never experienced what it is like to swim 60 miles a day in the open water. Dolphins are naturally curious and love to explore. However, their lives in captivity don’t give them that opportunity. Instead they are trained to exhibit certain behaviours such as tail-walking and waving, which dolphins in the wild just wouldn’t do.

They are trained in their confinement by the withholding of food. Often they are kept hungry in order to encourage interaction with human guests. Clearly, the dolphins are just hoping to be fed when they come over to nudge and kiss their admirers. Realistically, this means the dolphins probably aren’t that happy. But it will still look like they’re smiling – so don’t be fooled.

It’s stressful for them

So these captive animals aren’t smiling – and they are, in fact, quite stressed.

Researchers have found that getting close to dolphins and/or touching them is actually highly stressful for them. It actually prevents them from being able to rest and recuperate, and stops them doing things like feeding or nurturing their young. In the wild this means that young dolphins (calves) are in danger of starvation and neglect. And calves bred in captivity are destined for a life of only knowing stress, witnessing it from their parents and then experiencing it for themselves as they grown older and get trained too.

As with humans, stress is physically dangerous for animals. Cortisol levels are raised, exceeding the normal range, leading to an increased heart rate and blood pressure. This triggers the fight or flight reaction too. However, as captive dolphins have nowhere to go, this in itself is also dangerous!

faceless diver swimming deep underwater near flock of dolphins
Photo by Daniel Torobekov on Pexels.com

Dolphins are wild animals

When it comes down to it, a dolphin is a wild animal. This is a definite reason as to why you should never swim with dolphins – especially if you want to keep your family safe while on holiday. They (the dolphins, not your family) are ocean predators. Capable of killing sharks and other sea creatures, they are far from being domesticated animals.

Even those bred in captivity, as many water park dolphins are, have the ability to cause serious harm to the humans they interact with as well as to other dolphins. This is particularly true when they’re stressed. And with the constant training and performing as well as having to be around new people all the time, it’s no wonder that dolphins get stressed! They have been known to break bones by biting and pushing people, as well as throwing swimmers into deeper water or hitting them.

Obviously, your family’s safety is a priority. While it is unlikely that you or your children will be injured, swimming with dolphins is still a risk and one that you should weigh up very carefully. Being a high-risk activity, swimming with dolphins is something that generally isn’t covered by travel insurance. So if the worst was to happen and one of your party got injured, you wouldn’t be covered for any costs associated with this. It’s definitely something to think about, and another reason why you shouldn’t swim with dolphins… There is a reason insurance companies don’t include it in their policies!

swimming dolphins near coral reef
Photo by Daniel Torobekov on Pexels.com

It isn’t particularly hygienic 

Swimming with dolphins isn’t hygienic for anyone involved. You’ll be getting in water that has been shared with many dolphins and humans on that day. If your dolphin-swimming slot is towards the late afternoon, you’ll be one of hundreds that have already been in that tiny pool today.

Germs and illnesses can be passed easily between humans and dolphins, too. Swimmers are keen to stroke, touch and kiss the dolphins when swimming with them. It’s a once in a lifetime experience for most, and people want to make the most of it. But in doing so, bacteria can be transferred and any illness you have could be passed onto the dolphin you’re swimming with – and vice versa. 

Again, your family’s safety while on holiday is paramount. Getting ill is a chance you might be willing the take but realistically, it’s a huge reason why you shouldn’t swim with dolphins. Spending the remainder of your dream vacation stuck in a hotel room and feeling terrible doesn’t sound much fun, does it?

Why you should never swim with dolphins: Convinced yet?

Hopefully, I have convinced you that you should never swim with dolphins. Instead, teach yourself and you kids to be ethical tourists. Take care of the planet and the people and the animals that live on it, and you will definitely feel better at the end of the day!

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ABOUT

Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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