WDCS Policy On Swimming With Dolphins
Dolphin interaction programmes, from touching and feeding, to swimming in the dolphins environment, be it captive or wild, are increasing in range and popularity. An understandable love for dolphins may encourage the public to want to get close to them. This desire may stem from the belief that close contact with these special animals can provide, at the very least, a release from day-to-day stresses and boredom and, at the other extreme, some sort of miracle cure for physical and mental illness, and disability. Such beliefs have helped encourage the growth of interaction programmes by both commercial interests and alternative therapists. However, whilst understanding the reasons why the public is keen to engage in such activities, WDCS has several serious concerns about these practices, which are summarised below.Swimming with captive dolphins
WDCS is increasingly concerned about the growing number of captive Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) programmes in the United States, Latin America and elsewhere. We have recently reviewed details of existing and proposed DAT programmes and our findings, supported by the charity Research Autism, show that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the therapy is effective. You can read the report from the link on the right hand side on this page.
WDCS believes that the arguments against the confinement of cetaceans are so over-whelming, that any proposal to keep them captive, for whatever reason, should be rejected on animal welfare grounds alone.
WDCS has a series of well-substantiated concerns about interactions between humans and dolphins in captivity. These concerns, relating to the welfare of humans as well as dolphins, apply equally to DAT. They include the welfare of the animal; the risk of aggression towards people; the potential for disease transmission from human to dolphin or vice versa; the fact that dolphins may be forced into interactions with humans and have little respite from these actions, and the fact that in so many DAT and other interaction programmes, dolphins are captured from the wild and are transported thousands of miles to suffer the effects of confinement in captivity.
Dolphins are large, strong animals, perfectly adapted to the conditions of the open ocean. Held in a confined space and subjected to forced interaction with humans, aggressive behaviour can have serious consequences. A recent study carried out by WDCS into dolphin/visitor interactions at marine parks in America records many incidents of aggressive behaviour by dolphins towards human visitors such as threats, biting and butting. This study also raises serious concerns regarding the potential for the transmission of disease between human visitors and dolphins. Inadequate regulations exist in relation to interactions between captive dolphins and members of the public. WDCS is bringing its concerns and evidence to the attention of relevant governments and other interested parties, who must address the potential consequences for both human and dolphins of these interaction programmes.Swimming with wild whales and dolphins
Swimming with wild whales and dolphins is, potentially, an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. Sadly, it is very difficult to ensure that the encounter takes place on the whale or dolphins terms and is not an intrusive or stressful experience for what are, after all, wild animals. For this reason, WDCS is unable to recommend public support for commercial swim-with wild cetacean programmes which have sprung up in various parts of the world in recent years.
Whilst there are responsible and thoughtful swim operators, sadly, it is also true that, in some locations, wild whales or dolphins are harassed and repeatedly disturbed by swim boats which tend to drop swimmers in the water as close as possible to the animals. Research indicates that, in some areas heavily targetted by commercial swim tours and other human activities, dolphins are actually leaving their traditional habitat in favour of quieter areas. There is concern that disruption to feeding, resting, nursing and other behaviour may have a long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations.
Another consideration is the safety of both swimmers and cetaceans. Whales and dolphins are large, powerful animals and if not treated with respect, are capable of injuring people in the water, either accidentally, or if they feel threatened in any way. Like all animals, cetaceans are protective of their young. Many people are unaware that they may not be adequately covered by insurance for what are classified as high-risk activities, such as swimming with cetaceans.
Cetaceans have also been injured by boat propellers, and by thoughtless behaviour from swimmers, including damage to dolphins’ sensitive skin caused by scratches from rings and other jewellery. Two-way disease transmission is also a possibility. Finally, in some areas, cetaceans are offered food by swim tour operators to encourage them to remain in the vicinity of swimmers. This practice may encourage ‘begging behaviour’, causing the dolphins to become artificially dependent upon humans and neglect their normal foraging activities.
WDCS has funded research into the potential impact of swim tours upon wild whales and dolphins. Until we are satisfied that this activity truly does not represent a risk to both swimmers and cetaceans, our policy is to recommend that the public opts for a solely boat-based trip (one that does not involve entering the water). We urge the industry to both address these concerns and work towards a regulation system that ensures these concerns are no longer an issue.
WDCS also has concerns for ‘solitary sociable’ or ’friendly’ dolphins. These animals are extremely vulnerable and have their own unique set of issues. To find out more about the threats faced by these animals and the risks involved in interacting with solitary dolphins please visit our ‘Solitary dolphins
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