Lolita alone at the Miami Seaquarium


dolphin swim program


Fall 1994
To Swim with Dolphins
Study contradicts programs' benign image

Since 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.

There 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 humans.

In 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.

The 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.

Dolphins 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.

The 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.

From 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 of dolphins.

The 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 their deaths.

The 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.

It 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.

-Naomi 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.

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be determined by the way it treats its animals," - Mohandas Gandhi


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