Travel and Dolphins
If your bucket list is adorned with dreams of swimming with dolphins in Cancun or whale watching in Iceland, you are not alone. According to a survey conducted by Engage Mutual, over a quarter of Brits dream of swimming with dolphins. Recreational activities with wild animals are favoured among all, yet it is necessary to understand the moral ambiguity attached to them. Whether it be a trip to the zoo or a day out to SeaWorld, you are inadvertently contributing to the breach of animal rights and the prolonged suffering of the very creatures you pay to see. It is easy to scroll past Facebook posts exposing the institutional cruelty of zoos and the truth behind a seemingly harmless dolphin show, so we avert our gaze and feign ignorance. Or perhaps we are unaware of the horrors which coexist with the industry, and the result of our naivety is the continuation of animal cruelty across the world. The perpetuation of animal cruelty for our entertainment is a longstanding crime and often a cultural norm. Despite the continued efforts of animal rights worker and conservationists, companies harbouring such cruelty continue to not merely exist, but thrive. The sordid truth is that by engaging in these seemingly innocent activities with captive animals, you are complicit in their suffering.
I, too, am among the guilty, and though I was just seven years old it does not abdicate me of my regret. It is always with more reluctance than fondness that I relay my experience of swimming with dolphins, and though I cannot deny that it was bucket-list worthy, I can shed light on the underlying cruelty and advocate for better ways of connecting with nature. It was at a dolphin park in Mexico that boasted of a once-in-a-lifetime experience and bombarded you with fanfare to distract from the cages and the captivity. The tourism industry often deceives us into thinking that they are helping the animals and that the conditions are perfectly sanitary and acceptable, but do not be fooled. The company may vow that the animals under their command are well treated and cared for, but the fact remains: they are wild animals who have been ripped from their natural habitats and families to be caged for human pleasure. Even if they are well-fed and adequately housed, the conditions are incomparable to their own.
Fear not! There are many safe means of fulfilling your dreams which do not jeopardise an animal’s life. Research is key- it is necessary to investigate and ensure that the activity is harmless. This is a traveller’s guide to experience even your wildest dreams in an ethical, animal-friendly way, and examine why we must avoid the unethical routes.
Swimming with these beautiful mammals in the wild offers a much more authentic experience and the opportunity to witness them in their natural habitat. They are not toys to prod and poke, but living beings with cognitions and emotions. When you visit dolphin park websites you find price lists and no information regarding the mammals’ welfare. They are merely a commodity designed to make money, and their wellbeing is secondary. Dolphin parks and aquariums housing large marine life are microcosms of large corporations such as SeaWorld, which was rightfully exposed in 2013 documentary Blackfish. Forcing animals to perform and entertain, wherever it may be, is abusive. By buying tickets, we are fuelling and funding the capitalist ideals upholding the tourism industry.
An example of a company offering swimming with dolphin programmes is Dolphin Discovery, which primarily operates across the Mexican Caribbean and the US, with facilities spanning to Italy and Argentina. One of many dolphin and marine life facilities, it is also considered one of the more ethical. It holds certifications for animal welfare from the American Humane Conservation programme, which states that they provide humane treatment of the animals under their care. However, one award hides a multitude of maltreatment. They are being assessed against other captive animals as opposed to wild dolphins. This is to say that their behaviors are more favourable than the dolphins imprisoned in alternate institutions, and it does not ensure animal welfare.
Dolphin Discovery also manages dolphin parks based at hotel resorts. Located away from the ocean, the dolphins are subjected to even poorer conditions than their kin in ocean cages. At the age of 16, wiser and travelling with more knowledge of animal tourism, I experienced my second bout of dolphin cruelty. I was holidaying at a hotel resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico with my family which, unbeknownst to us when we booked, housed a dolphin park. I successfully avoided it until I visited the hotel spa which overlooked the park. The term ‘dolphin park’ is wishful thinking- it was a swimming pool, and a small one at that. It was unsuitable for a single dolphin, certainly not the four who swam in their 14-metre-deep pool, which is considered regulatory by Dolphin Discovery. Hotel resorts house their own dolphinariums where the dolphin resides in what is essentially a hot tub. This is perceived as a novelty for guests, but it in fact increasingly common for hotels to enclose dolphins within their very walls. Tourists are swayed by the unrelenting advertisements and the misconception that the dolphins ‘seem happy’. It is very easy to forget that it is their job, and the ugly truth is that their apparent unhappiness will not bode well for their career. The hotels are unwilling to part with the facts outlining the pool size and the conditions in which the dolphins are enclosed. They continuously fail to provide information regarding the dolphins’ welfare. In reality, their life consists of unrelenting sun exposure with no shelter, shallow waters and a rigorous performance schedule. They are puppets with fins, and we are the greedy consumers with a malfunctioning moral compass.
The tourism industry disguises a dark underbelly of animal maltreatment which continues to go unnoticed. These companies hide under the premise of education and conservation, trapping customers like dolphins in nets. We are more outraged by the price of the photographs than the animal abuse which reels in countless visitors each day. TripAdvisor is littered with the false claims of dolphin trainers, easing the bruised consciousness of holiday-goers. Miseducation is paramount in these facilities. Dolphin trainers masquerade as marine biologists and mislead unsuspecting tourists, claiming that dolphins live longer in captivity. In fact, a dolphin’s lifespan is more than halved when they are ripped from the wild, reduced from 30-50 years to an average of 12 if they are lucky. They fail to inform customers that dolphin calves die so frequently in dolphin parks that it remains unreported, and they remain unnamed until the age of 6 months. By researching dolphin mistreatment, you will open a can of worms- or fish, should I say. It is a web of misconduct which spans across the globe. Dolphins are not the sole captives of the tourism industry- whales, sea lions and manatees are also subjected to cruelty, whilst corporations such as SeaWorld single-handedly destroy marine life. So, how can we enjoy marine life and maintain a clear conscience?
Snorkelling with wild dolphins
It is difficult to ethically swim with dolphins, but not impossible. Dolphins have noticeably frequented the Samadai Reef in Egypt since 1990, leading to a spike in tourism to the area and the compromised safety of marine life. However, a management scheme has been put in place to ensure their wellbeing, with strict regulations for tourists to follow. Measures in place include zoning, time area closures, a permitting system, approach guidelines and a cap to the maximum number of tourists allowed to visit the reef each day, which make it a more viable option for tourists seeking a dolphin encounter. Kaikoura, New Zealand is also a popular destination to swim with wild dolphins, despite the cold waters! Dusky dolphins approach swimmers by the masses, whereas other species refrain from investigating. Dolphin Encounters is the sole company in Kaikoura offering the excursion. It practices environmental sustainability and established the Encounter Foundation which works towards environmental conservation, education and research. There is no feeding or baiting to entice the dolphins- they have free reign over their own communication. There are limited boat tours each day to minimise disruption.
You can take a boat tour out into the open ocean and recognise marine animal hot spots. They are naturally curious and likely to approach boats, giving you the opportunity to see them play in lieu of their carefully orchestrated routines. The inquisitive nature of dolphins often leads them to investigate, and they have the freedom to decide whether to approach. An example of an ethical boat tour which does not harass marine life is based in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka. They can be found here. The service includes dolphin and whale watching tours which do not follow nor feed the animals, thereby serving to protect them. It is important that boat tours do not feed the marine animals, since they become reliant on tourism and neglect their hunting duties. This has catastrophic effects when it is off-season and there are no tourists to feed them. Their behaviour is also altered and they risk getting boat-related injuries due to swimming too close. You can also stay on the beach to see dolphins- there are many locations where you can view dolphins from the shore. In Laguana, Brazil, there has been a human-dolphin partnership which is thought to have originated over 100 years ago. The bottlenose dolphins chase fish into the waiting nets of the fishermen, mutually benefitting both parties and serving as quite a phenomenon.
Scuba diving allows you to unearth a vast underwater world of marine life. There are abundant locations throughout the world where scuba diving promises an awe-inspiring, aquatic experience. A prime example is off the island of Socorro, Mexico where you are almost guaranteed to find dolphins, manta rays, and an assortment of sharks. A peaceful scuba dive is unlikely to cause disruption to marine life and will offer you the experience of a lifetime. So, don the gear and have an adventure!
Dolphin Research Centres
Certain dolphin research centres such as the Florida Keys centre are more ethical than dolphin parks, though not without fault. It is a non-profit organisation which rescues and rehabilitates dolphins, whales, manatees and sea lions that are unable to be released back into the wild. Essentially, the centre aids dolphins who have been victimised by the system and attempts to mend the damage wreaked by the tourism industry. A leader in marine mammal care, they conduct research on the dolphins in their care to advance our knowledge, as well as hosting educational programmes to the public. However, over half of the dolphins at the centre were born there, promoting the idea that if dolphins are bred in captivity, it is ethical. Despite their mission to further marine knowledge, the dolphin research centre plays a role in dolphin captivity. It is therefore advisable to avoid swimming with dolphins at facilities and opt for seeing them in the wild.
In an increasingly technological world, it is possible to virtually swim with dolphins. Wild dolphin VR therapy is being used not merely for entertainment, but for its healing benefits. For example, VR Therapies created a virtual reality which involves users sitting in a hydrotherapy pool and being surrounded by a pod of dolphins. Designed to reduce the demand for swim-with-dolphin programmes, it also provides a form of relaxation therapy for those with special needs and mental health problems. It has been used in over 150 healthcare institutes worldwide. With its 360 degree virtual reality, you can play with dolphins and have the illusion of being amongst them. Underwater VR provides a sensory, realistic experience for all, though you do not have to be submerged to enjoy it.
In memory of Fungie the Dolphin
Fungie the dolphin has graced the shores of Dingle harbour in County Kerry, Ireland, since 1983. The resident dolphin was first spotted escorting fishing boats to shore by the lighthouse keeper. Expected to migrate, Fungie defied expectations year after year as he remained in the small harbour, becoming integral to the very identity of Dingle. Thousands of tourists have flocked to the quaint town to bear witness to his affinity for humans, and to experience the marine magic he brought to the town. Though he brought great economic gain through droves of tourists eager to glimpse him, Fungie was always respected as a wild dolphin. Boat tours into the harbour didn’t feed nor harass Fungie, yet he always made a beeline for the boats. He earned the title of ‘the oldest solitary dolphin in the world’ by Guinness World Records in 2019, and though solitary he may have been, he was certainly not lonely. He has always sought human companionship and was a valued member of the Irish community, whilst news of his fascinating lifestyle trickled across the world. Regretfully, the charming Dingle dolphin has not been sighted since October 2020, and he is sadly believed to be deceased. Fungie is a household name across Ireland and a cherished ambassador of Dingle, whose memory is encased in bronze by American sculptor James Bottoms. The statue was erected in 2000 and though it could never capture his inquisitive, endearing nature, it represents the importance of dolphins not as commodities, but as friends. Dingle will certainly feel the financial loss of Fungie for its tourism industry, but it does not compare to the sadness at the loss of their finned leprechaun who has returned to the great deep. The tale of Fungie will continue to enchant visitors for years to come, and the treasured dolphin will live on in memory. His legacy teaches us how we can live in harmony with these beautiful, wild animals, and that when respected, they will view us not as an enemy, but a friend.