Dolphin Tourism and Swimming with Dolphins

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20120522-Dolphin_kiss_eric_talaska.jpg Dolphin therapy describes a treatment in which people suffering depression and other mental illnesses spend time with dolphins. One study found that patients who took part in such a program with bottlenose dolphins for two weeks experienced relief from their symptoms while patients in control group that spent time in the water and sun without dolphins dd not enjoy the same benefits.

Joshua Foer wrote in National Geographic: “There are people who go on spiritual retreats to commune with dolphins, women who choose to give birth in the presence of dolphins, and centers that claim to use the powers of dolphin energy to treat the sick. “There are probably more weird ideas about dolphins swimming in cyberspace than there are dolphins swimming in the ocean,” writes Gregg. Many of those weird ideas can be traced back to a single man, named John Lilly. [Source: Joshua Foer, National Geographic, May 2015]

“Lilly was an iconoclastic neurophysiologist at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health who began studying dolphins in the 1950s. In the 1960s he released all of the dolphins he been attempting to teach English to because he "no longer wanted to run a concentration camp for my friends," In best-selling books like "Man and Dolphin: Adventures on a New Scientific Frontier" and "The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence", he was the first scientist to posit that these “humans of the sea” had a language. Almost single-handedly, writes Gregg, he “managed to transform what was initially regarded as an odd air-breathing fish at the turn of the 20th century into an animal whose intelligence is so sophisticated that it deserves the same constitutional protection as you or me.”

“With grants from major scientific funding bodies, Lilly opened a dolphin research facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where attempts were made to teach a dolphin named Peter to speak English. As the 1960s dawned, Lilly’s experiments grew more and more unconventional — at one point he injected dolphins with LSD — and his funding began to dry up. He wandered off into the weirdest corners of the counterculture and carried with him the credibility of the field he’d helped create.

Websites and Resources: Britain-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society ; Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase; Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Traveling Russian Dolphinariums

Russian dolphinarium, From The Dodo

Natasha Daly wrote in National Geographic: To have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see rare Black Sea dolphins, people in the landlocked town of Kaluga, a hundred miles from Moscow, don’t have to leave their city. In the parking lot of the Torgoviy Kvartal shopping mall, next to a hardware store, is a white inflatable pop-up aquarium: the Moscow Traveling Dolphinarium. It looks like a children’s bouncy castle that’s been drained of its color. [Source: Natasha Daly, National Geographic, June 2019]

“Inside the puffy dome, parents buy their kids dolphin-shaped trinkets: fuzzy dolls and Mylar balloons, paper dolphin hats, and drinks in plastic dolphin tumblers. Families take their seats around a small pool. The venue is so intimate that even the cheapest seats, at nine dollars apiece, are within splashing distance. “My kids are jumping for joy,” says a woman named Anya, motioning toward her two giddy boys, bouncing in their seats.

“In the middle of the jubilant atmosphere, in water that seems much too shallow and much too murky, two dolphins swim listlessly in circles. Russia is one of only a few countries (Indonesia is another) where traveling oceanariums exist. Dolphins and beluga whales, which need to be immersed in water to stay alive, are put in tubs on trucks and carted from city to city in a loop that usually ends when they die. These traveling shows are aboveboard: Russia has no laws that regulate how marine mammals should be treated in captivity.

“Alla Azovtseva, a longtime dolphin trainer in Russia, shakes her head. “I don’t see any sense in this work. My conscience bites me. I look at my animals and want to cry,” says Azovtseva, who drives a red van with dolphins airbrushed on the side. “She says she fell in love with dolphins in the late 1980s when she read a book by Lilly. She has spent 30 years training marine mammals to do tricks. But along the way she’s grown heartsick from forcing highly intelligent, social creatures to live isolated, barren lives in small tanks. “I would compare the dolphin situation with making a physicist sweep the street,” she says. “When they’re not engaged in performance or training, they just hang in the water facing down. It’s the deepest depression.”

Swimming with Dolphins

In recent decades petting and swimming sessions with captive dolphins have become popular all over the world. Visitors pay up to several hundred to caress and hang out with dolphins kept in tanks and pools at ocean parks or luxury hotels. In teh 2000s, trained dolphins for such places cost about $70,000. Untrained ones could be purchased from fishermen for about $7,000.

Tickets can sell for $50 or more and often sell out. Tourists sometimes get a dorsal fin ride and maybe a double foot push, which is a bit like waterskiing.Captive dolphin petting sessions are generally regarded as safe. The dolphins are usually well trained and they are handled by professional trainers. Sometimes injuries occur. One woman in Japan was struck in the chest by a dolphin, breaking here ribs and a bone in her back.

Natasha Daly wrote in National Geographic: “Bottlenose dolphins are the backbone of an industry that spans the globe. Swim-with-dolphins operations rely on captive-bred and wild-caught dolphins that live — and interact with tourists — in pools. The popularity of these photo-friendly attractions reflects the disconnect around dolphin experiences: People in the West increasingly shun shows that feature animals performing tricks, but many see swimming with captive dolphins as a vacation rite of passage. [Source: Natasha Daly, National Geographic, June 2019]

The Walt Disney Company offers dolphin encounters on some vacation excursions and at an attraction in Epcot, one of its Orlando parks. Disney says it follows the animal welfare standards of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a nonprofit that accredits more than 230 facilities worldwide. Some U.S. attractions breed their own dolphins because the nation has restricted dolphin catching in the wild since 1972. But elsewhere, dolphins are still being taken from the wild and turned into performers. In China, which has no national laws on captive-animal welfare, dolphinariums with wild-caught animals are a booming business: There are now 78 marine mammal parks, and 26 more are under construction.

In some places tour groups sponsor swims in the open sea with wild dolphins. Describing a dolphin encounter in the Bahamas," Kenneth Norris wrote in National Geographic, “When...I entered the water, about a dozen dolphins swam right over to us. They circled, pirouetted around and under us, gave us a pump or two with their flukes, and glided off into the blue like sail planes four times faster than we could go. There was no doubt the dolphins came to play. The speckled-bellied juveniles came most often, waiting graciously for us to do something mildly exciting.” [Source: Kenneth Norris, National Geographic, September 1992]

Dolphin Quest

Dolphin Quest Oahu is an upscale swim-with-dolphins business on the grounds of the beachfront Kahala Hotel & Resort, just east of Honolulu. People pay paid $225 each to swim for 30 minutes in a small group with a bottlenose dolphin. One of two Dolphin Quest locations in Hawaii, the facility houses six dolphins. Natasha Daly wrote in National Geographic: “Katie Regan has wanted to swim with dolphins since she was a child. Her husband laughs and says of Dolphin Quest, “They paint a lovely picture. When you’re in America, everyone is smiling.” But he appreciates that the facility is at their hotel, so they can watch the dolphins being fed and cared for.[Source: Natasha Daly, National Geographic, June 2019]

“Rae Stone, president of Dolphin Quest and a marine mammal veterinarian, says the company donates money to conservation projects and educates visitors about perils that marine mammals face in the wild. By paying for this entertainment, she says, visitors are helping captive dolphins’ wild cousins. Stone notes that Dolphin Quest is certified “humane” by American Humane, an animal welfare nonprofit.

“It’s a vigorous debate: whether even places with high standards, veterinarians on staff, and features such as pools filled with filtered ocean water can be truly humane for marine mammals. Dolphin Quest’s Stone says yes. Critics, including the Humane Society of the United States, which does not endorse keeping dolphins in captivity, say no. They argue that these animals have evolved to swim great distances and live in complex social groups — conditions that can’t be replicated in the confines of a pool. This helps explain why the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, announced in 2016 that its dolphins will be retired to a seaside sanctuary by 2020.

Negative Side of Swimming with Dolphins

Conservationists oppose the swim-with dolphins programs, saying they are stressful to the animals. The industry is unregulated. Some of the dolphins are kept in depressingly small tanks and given little rest by trainers who have bought the dolphins for as little as $800 on the black market and have little interest in anything but making money. Outrage reached a high point after one dolphin died at a marine park in Mexico. An autopsy revealed extensive stomach ulcers. In 1968, two captive dolphins killed themselves by swimming full speed into walls in their tank.

Dolphins are caught with several boats that surround a small herd with nets and gradually move in on the dolphins. Some dolphins injure themselves when they panic and struggle and try to get away. Some go into shock. Around 30 percent of those captured die within the first two years. Survivors live into their 30s and 40s.

Natasha Daly wrote in National Geographic: “The shows are the domestic arm of a brisk Russian global trade in dolphins and small whales. “What people don’t know about many aquarium shows in Russia, Azovtseva says, is that the animals often die soon after being put in captivity, especially those in traveling shows. And Azovtseva says she knows many aquariums quietly and illegally replace their animals with new ones. [Source: Natasha Daly, National Geographic, June 2019]

“It’s been illegal to catch Black Sea dolphins in the wild for entertainment purposes since 2003, but according to Azovtseva, aquarium owners who want to increase their dolphin numbers quickly and cheaply buy dolphins poached there. Because these dolphins are acquired illegally, they’re missing the microchips that captive cetaceans in Russia are usually tagged with as a form of required identification.

“Some aquariums get around that, she says, by cutting out dead dolphins’ microchips and implanting them into replacement dolphins. “People are people,” Azovtseva says. “Once they see an opportunity, they exploit.” She says she can’t go on doing her work in the industry and that she’s decided to speak out because she wants people to know the truth about the origins and treatment of many of the marine mammals they love watching. We exchange a look — we both know what her words likely mean for her livelihood. “I don’t care if I’m fired,” she says defiantly. “When a person has nothing to lose, she becomes really brave.”

Negative Side of Swimming with Dolphins in the Wild

Swimming with wild dolphins in the open sea can have a negative side. In the United States, the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act bans “harassing” dolphins, which means pursuing or annoying them to the point that it hurts them or changes their behavior. Violators face a $20,000 fine. Trevor Spradlin, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Services, says swimmers should stay at least 50 feet away from dolphins and use binoculars to get a closer look. An American ban on feeding wild dolphins is routinely ignored.

In March 2023, 33 swimmers were investigated by Hawaiian authorities after video appeared to them chasing and harassing a pod of spinner dolphins in Hōnaunau Bay off Hawaii's Big Island. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources said the drone video and photographs captured the 33 individuals “ aggressively pursuing, corralling, and harassing the pod” of mammals. [Source: Joshua Espinoza, Complex, April 1, 2023]

According to NBC News, a 2021 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits swimmers from getting within 50 yards of spinner dolphins that are within two nautical miles of the Hawaiian shoreline and other designated waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the federal law distinguishes two levels of harassment: one covers “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance” that may injure a sea mammal, while other refers to “acts that have the potential to disturb the animals’ everyday activities, such as sleeping, eating, or breeding. Officials have not confirmed what kind of penalties the swimmers will face, but according to NBC News, federal guidelines say violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act can lead to fines of up to $11,000 or up to a year in prison.

In May 2022, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a warning about a pushy, aggressive dolphin in the water off of North Padre Island, Texas, about 32 kilometers (20 miles) east of Corpus Christi. "Biologists report the animal is showing more aggressive behavior, separating children from their parents in the water, and isolating swimming pets from their owners," a NOAA press release said. [Source: Claire Osborn, Austin American-Statesman, USA TODAY, June 1, 2022]

The Austin American-Statesman reported: The problem is that people have been feeding, swimming and playing with the dolphin for more than a year despite warnings from biologists, law enforcement and residents to stay away from it, according to the release. It said that the dolphin "has become so used to humans that it now seeks out people, boats, and any form of interaction." The mammal also has wounds caused by boats and there are concerns about its safety, officials said. People are being asked to leave the dolphin alone. Boaters are asked to avoid stopping if the dolphin comes to close and to slowly move away. Swimmers are being asked to leave the water if they see the dolphin, the release said.

"While the dolphin may seem friendly, this is a wild animal with unpredictable behavior," according to NOAA. It is showing behaviors similar to other lone, sociable dolphins worldwide, officials said. Those behaviors, according to the release, include following boats and people, losing its natural wariness and starting to play with and swim with people, The dolphin in now in the last stage of these behaviors which include showing dominant and aggressive behavior toward people, according to NOAA. Any interaction with the dolphin that may injure or change its behaviors is considered to be harassment and is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Feeding or attempting to feed wild dolphins is also illegal. Violations are punishable by a fine up to $100,000 up to 1 year in jail.

Can Captive Dolphins Return to the Wild?

Thousands of dolphins have been taken captive to perform in shows at marine parks. Now some are being taught how to go home again. Tim Zimmermann wrote in National Geographic: “In early January 2011 Jeff Foster, a 55-year-old marine mammal expert from Seattle, arrived on the stony shore of a pristine bay near the small village of Karaca, situated in a corner of the Gulf of Gökova on Turkey’s southwest coast. Just offshore was a collection of floating pens used to farm fish. In one of them, which had been modified and measured about a hundred feet across and 50 feet deep, two male bottlenose dolphins swam in slow circles.

“Tom and Misha, as they were called, were in lamentable condition. As far as anyone could tell, they’d been captured in the Aegean sometime in 2006, and almost nothing was known about their lives in the wild. After starting their captive lives at a dolphin park in the seaside town of Kas, they’d been trucked a short distance inland in June 2010 to a crudely constructed concrete pool in the mountain town of Hisarönü so that tourists could pay $50 for the chance to grab their dorsal fins and get a ten-minute tow. Hisarönü consists mainly of cheap hotels and bars with suggestive names like Oh Yes! and thumping late-night music. It would be hard to imagine a more incongruous or disorienting location for two ocean-born dolphins. An inadequate filtration system quickly left the bottom of their pool carpeted with dead fish and dolphin feces.

“Within weeks, an outraged grassroots and social media campaign organized by dolphin-loving locals had forced the place to close. In early September, amid fears that the dolphins would soon die, the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of animals in the wild, stepped in and took possession of Tom and Misha. The two dolphins were bundled into a refrigerated meat truck lined with old mattresses and transported to the pen off Karaca. Foster was hired to help Born Free attempt something truly ambitious: restore Tom and Misha to peak physical condition, teach them what they would need to know to live as wild dolphins again, and release them back into the Aegean. “It is extremely high risk with a creature that is not predictable and easy,” says Will Travers, Born Free’s president. “But we realized that there were very few options for them, and they were likely to die unless somebody did something.”

“Fewer than three dozen long-term captive dolphins had been released over the previous 50 years, with mixed and often inconclusive results. Tom and Misha offered an opportunity to elevate the art and science of teaching a dolphin to be wild again and better define at least one alternative to continued captivity. “This is the sort of thing that touches people to the core,” says Travers. “If we could get it right for Tom and Misha, it could inspire people and help people move along to question [captive dolphin] display.” [Source: Tim Zimmermann, National Geographic, June 2015]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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