To Swim with Dolphins
Study contradicts programs' benign image
the mid-1980s, so-called swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) programs
have been publicized as benign, enjoyable ways to get to
know gentle, intelligent marine mammals. Visitors to SWTD
facilities can pet captive dolphins in shallow water or
be towed along by holding a dolphin's dorsal fin. The National
Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency until
recently responsible for regulating such programs, has collected
injury reports on people participating in SWTD programs
since 1989 and in 1992 commissioned a study on the risks
involved. Both the study (whose results were published in
April) and the injury reports clearly support The HSUS's
position that SWTD programs promote dangerous and stressful
situations for humans and dolphins alike.
has never been a report of a wild dolphin injuring a human
swimmer. However, the NMFS received more than a dozen reports
of injuries to people who participated in SWTD programs,
ranging from lacerations to broken bones and shock. One
man suffered a cracked sternum when butted by a dolphin
with his snout, and a woman received a broken arm when another
dolphin butted her with his snout. Several dolphin biologists
have noted that the injuries captive dolphins inflict on
humans are rarely accidental; dolphins are extremely adept
with their movements in water. Yet all of the injuries reported
to the NMFS have been labeled accidents. (Facilities until
recently have been required to report all injuries to humans.)
Broken arms and ribs have been ascribed to so-called accidental
bumps. In characterizing the dolphins' behavior as unintentional,
SWTD personnel are exploiting the desire of the public to
believe that dolphins are incapable of deliberately hurting
fact. the stress inflicted by the unnatural conditions of
captivity often causes dolphins to behave aberrantly toward
people and other dolphins. A dolphin can inflict minor to
serious injuries on people for various reasons, some of
which are neither obvious nor predictable. The risk is always
present and is potentially lethal. While it is unlikely
that any dolphin would kill someone purposely, an aggressive
animal would be capable of killing a comparatively fragile
human even if the animal intended only to injure. This risk
of serious injury or death to swimmers in SWTD programs
has significant implications for the dolphins. An animal
involved in an injurious or fatal interaction would be removed
from the program, and his/her fate would be in question.
NMFS report's analysis demonstrates that both dolphins and
swimmers are at risk in SWTD programs. The report concludes
that female and young swimmers are most at risk from aggressive
and aberrant sexual behavior by dolphins. Dolphins face
the greatest risk from male swimmers. The report clearly
indicates that, to ensure the safety of both dolphins and
swimmers, SWTD programs must be strictly controlled. "Control,"
according to the study's definition, is supervision by trainers
of the interactions between dolphins and swimmers.
frequently display submissive behaviors toward humans in
uncontrolled swims. This fact indicates a very disturbing
dynamic between the humans (usually male) and dolphins,
since dolphins are larger and stronger than humans and are
in their own element. This submissive behavior is indicative
of a persistent level of stress to which the dolphin in
an SWTD program is subjected. A dolphin's submissive posture
could affect the dominance hierarchy within the dolphin's
social group, resulting in increased injury to the submissive
animal. The report also notes that there is growing evidence
that submissive behaviors are linked to biochemical changes
in the body that may have serious long-term effects on health.
NMFS required that dolphins have some area within the swim
enclosure that served as a refuge from swimmers. The report
expressed concern regarding the concept of dolphin "refuges."
As the NMFS defined refuges, swimmers would not be allowed
in the area and dolphins would be free to enter it whenever
they chose. However, the report noted that, at one facility,
the refuge was neither easily accessible nor attractive
to the dolphins, and the animals never freely entered it.
At the other facilities, while the refuges were easily accessible
and attractive and the dolphins freely entered them, the
animals were routinely recalled for swims, thus essentially
negating the refuge's purpose.
the facilities' point of view, recalling dolphins from the
refuges during swims makes sense. Their customers are paying
to swim with dolphins, not to watch dolphins avoid them.
From the dolphins' point of view, however, being recalled
from a refuge means that they are not allowed to choose
the level of interaction they find tolerable, which could
increase the level of stress suffered by the dolphins. This
issue is another example of the clear conflict between the
profit motive of SWTD programs and the behavioral needs
NMFS study raised questions about the fate of dolphins who
wash out-found to be unsuitable for STWD programs, either
because they do not interact readily with humans or because
they cannot be allowed to interact safely with them. Several
dolphins have been removed from these programs because they
became overly aggressive or consistently exhibited inappropriate
sexual behavior. The NMFS study did not, unfortunately,
suggest a specific plan for what to do with washed-out dolphins.*)
Should SWTD programs proliferate, the number of dolphins
deemed unusable would undoubtedly increase. The potential
to develop a population of delinquent dolphins is alarming.
It is of paramount importance that contingency plans for
such unwanted animals be established. It is unacceptable
for these animals simply to be caged and neglected until
SWTD programs hold even greater potential for disaster,
however. Until the recent passage of the Marine Mammal Protection
Act (MMPA) Amendments of 1994, the NMFS regulated the SWTD
programs in the United States and designated them "experimental,"
prohibiting their proliferation until the completion of
its study. Almost simultaneously with the publication of
the NMFS study, however, the new MMPA passed. Under new
law, the NMFS no longer regulates SWTD programs. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service (APHIS), the agency now in sole charge of ensuring
the humane treatment of captive marine mammals, currently
has no regulations governing these programs. Unregulated
SWTD programs may now proliferate unchecked.
is imperative that APHIS promptly issue regulations governing
SWTD programs. The HSUS is working with the agency to expedite
this process. Whatever regulations are eventually promulgated,
they must be strict and rigorous. If SWTD programs cannot
be made reasonably and consistently safe for both dolphins
and swimmers, they should be prohibited.
A. Rose. Ph.D., HSUS marine mammal scientist
SWTD programs have three options when a dolphin washes out.
They could send the animal to a standard marine park, but
the public-display industry is currently glutted with dolphins,
and it is unlikely any park would take another one. They
could rehabilitate and release the dolphin to the wild but
the industry has a policy of opposing this option. It is
concerned that the public would question the ethics of holding
these intelligent (and economically valuable) animals in
captivity if they could be returned to the wild. Lastly,
they could keep the dolphin, providing it with minimal care
at the SWTD facility, an option that politically is less
expensive to the industry as a whole but is not in the best
interests of the animal.