"Swimming with Dolphins" and other types of dolphin encounters are springing up not only at marine parks but even at individual resorts.
There's no denying that these experiences are thrilling for kids (and adults too.)
Yet ethical issues swirl around even the best-run high-profile facilities. These top places contribute to a world-wide appetite for dolphin experiences: and copycat facilities around the world may operate with fewer scruples and less scrutiny.
So what to do? First, at least be aware of the issues.
Issues about Dolphins in Captivity:
Capture of wild dolphins: whole pods are hunted, and prime young dolphins taken from their social groups. Reputable marine parks stress that their dolphins are born in captivity. But other facilities create a demand for dolphins acquired by any means, and captures continue today.
Size of habitat:
Do you really think the dolphins have enough space? Also: a dolphin's "sixth sense" is echo-location (aka "sonar") ; what happens to this sense in a concrete enclosed space?
How long is the working day?
How many times a day does a dolphin go through its roster of interactions with humans?
Stress and boredom:
Dolphins are perhaps cursed by the shape of their mouths: they always seem to be smiling. But we can't assume that's a happy face. Possible stress factors include: confined area; no place for retreat; echolocation in confined spaces; hunger satisfied only by performance behavior; surrounding noise (even loud music and fireworks) ; and more. Read about dolphins in captivity.
Hopefully no one will witness actual cruelty. But hunger can be invisible, and sometimes dolphins are kept hungry so they'll perform for food. Isolation is also cruel, for these very social animals.
How clean is the water where the dolphins live? What about the sunscreen people wear into their pools? Some facilities require people to use "dolphin-friendly" sunscreen.
Read more about these and issues about captive dolphins at the links below.
What to do?
Family vacationers have a range of choices regarding dolphin "attractions".
- Avoid the whole place: the Whale & Dolphin Conservancy advises "Do not visit marine parks, aquariums and zoos holding whales and dolphins in captivity."
- Read visitor comments first: for example, visitor comments about Manati Park in the Dominican Republic, at time of writing in 2011, are very discouraging. (And this Park has drawn criticism for many years.)
- Show up but don't sign up: i.e., go to the marine park or resort, but don't buy the dolphin experience. It's hard to say "no" to a child about an activity so appealing, especially if the animals are on display at your resort. But children tend to be true animal-lovers; you may be surprised how much your child values the dolphins' well-being.
- Vocalize: dolphins vocalize --use your voice, too! Ask questions especially in less-developed countries. Ask how the dolphins were acquired; how many "interactions" they have per day; and what about mortality rate?
- Look for standards, only choose the best: if you feel your family must have a dolphin experience, do it at a reputable facility only; and even there, ask questions that show your concerns.
An alternative to swimming with dolphins in captivity is to take a dolphins-in-the-wild tour run by an outfit that's careful not to disturb the animals' daily life. For example, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society offers "out of the blue" tours. And WildSide Specialty Tours in Hawaii is as good as it gets. Note however that wild dolphin tours are also problematic, because they can so easily disrupt the animals who need time to feed and mate.