Is it wrong to swim with the dolphins?
January 3, 2011 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Please help me decide whether it's ok to pay for "swim with the dolphins" type experiences. Is this animal cruelty I shouldn't support with my hard-earned dollars?

I'm currently taking a vacation on Grand Cayman Island. While planning the trip, I was really excited to have an experience swimming & playing with dolphins. In my naiveté, I somehow thought that in the Caribbean there were businesses that took tourists to see & interact with dolphins out in the ocean in their natural habitat. Now that I'm here, it seems the two companies that do this have the dolphins in some degree of captivity. Hotel staff doesn't have full details regarding the welfare of the dolphins, & the best info they can provide is that they're kept in lagoons of seawater attached to the ocean, but the lagoon is netted off to ensure the dolphins can't go too far.
I haven't called the facility for further info since I really don't expect them to tell me if there is abuse happening there, & obviously they don't have an ethical problem with this business.
I'm 15 pages deep on Google & all I find are great reviews of wonderful times, or PETA-type vitriol with little hard evidence.
I love animals & don't want to contribute to anything that supports cruelty. Are these dolphins tortured physically, tortured souls, or are they ok?

I'm specifically interested in Dolphin Discovery, as that is the facility recommended by the concierge.
posted by BillBishop to Pets & Animals (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Please don't do this. Even if (and it's highly unlikely) that you're going to a good facility, you're promoting the industry, and the industry is a nightmare.
posted by cyndigo at 9:40 PM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

As much as I would LOVE a swim with the dolphins experience I cannot support this and you've really already answered this.

Dolphins are meant to swim free in the oceans, not held captive behind a net in a cove.

Don't do it.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:43 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Watch a movie called The Cove, it's available on streaming Netflix. Pretty eye-opening related to dolphins in captivity (and sushi).
posted by trembleclef at 9:44 PM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

A better choice might be a "backstage" visit to a legit aquarium. I can only speak of Chicago's Shedd Aquarium personally, but they offer various "encounters" and trainer-for-a-day experiences.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:48 PM on January 3, 2011

Uh, the movie The Cove has absolutely nothing to do with what the poster describes, other than that both feature a cove and dolphins. Might as well tell him to watch Flipper for context.

OP, I don't have the answers for you about this. I probably wouldn't do it, but then again people go to seaworld etc with nary a thought and the enclosures are a hell of a lot smaller than a lagoon. Animals are not people, and do not share people concepts. But this also doesn't mean that they are in a good situation necessarily.
posted by smoke at 9:51 PM on January 3, 2011

Maybe I need to get more informed about the issue but I don't see how the massive dolphin slaughter that takes place in The Cove is related to dolphin swimming experiences. Are there spears involved?

Part of me wonders if the ability to have these types of experiences with dolphins can create a greater empathy for the worldwide population of dolphins, regardless of the level of captivity. Isn't this part of the reason behind zoos -- to educate people about animals so there is a greater respect for those that ARE found in the wild?

I could argue this either way but frankly I don't have a problem with the experience you described, especially if you cannot find any information about these particular dolphins being mistreated.
posted by thorny at 9:52 PM on January 3, 2011

A couple of years ago I did one of these "swim with the dolphins" experiences in Mexico without fully understanding it (someone else planned my trip itinerary, and I also assumed at first that it would be out in the ocean). I wish I hadn't gone. I just got the sense that the facility was a tourist trap interested primarily in making money, and the animals' well-being is secondary. At one point each guest got to ride the dolphin by holding onto its dorsal fin as it swam around. I can't imagine the dolphin likes that. The lagoons were pretty small.

Some time after that experience, I watched The Cove, a horrifying documentary about how dolphins are captured for aquariums and marine parks, and the even more terrible fate of the ones that are caught and not sold into captivity (spoiler alert: they're killed en masse).

So yeah, I regret supporting the dolphins-for-entertainment industry.
posted by I'm Not Really a Waitress at 9:53 PM on January 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, the entire point of The Cove is that the dolphins are caught to be sold to aquariums and marine parks. The slaughter is then an added bonus (!), and the fact that the mercury-laden meat is then sold for kids school lunches is the cherry on top.

I would LOVE to swim with dolphins, and since I'm not a diver I guess the only opportunity I would have is to do it at one of these facilities. I'm sure many of them are reputable. But it doesn't stop the fact that a huge number of dolphins are caught from the wild to supply SOME places and then entire pods are slaughtered as a side effect. Until we collectively decide that doing such is wrong, the lesser, more abusive places will stay in business. So, no, I can't do it and you shouldn't either.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:58 PM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Uh, the movie The Cove has absolutely nothing to do with what the poster describes, other than that both feature a cove and dolphins.

Then you weren't paying attention.

The movie shows how wild dolphins are rounded up into one place; trainers take their pick of the best ones for their sea parks and "swimming with dolphins" venues. The rest of them are slaughtered.

So yes, paying for the experience the poster describes is specifically supporting this practice. For every one dolphin you get to swim with, hundreds are murdered.
posted by hermitosis at 10:18 PM on January 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm a SCUBA diver, and I have run into schools of porpoises and dolphins in open ocean dives, and I think one of the reasons that you don't find many operations taking divers out to swim with wild dolphins, is that wild dolphins are unpredictable. For every delightful story of a wild dolphin or pod of dolphins altruistically supporting a floundering sailor for days, while protecting him from sharks, there is someone who can tell you of being rammed, bitten, and beaten, sometimes repeatedly, by streamlined mammalian bio-torpedoes 9 feet long, weighing a quarter ton, going 20 knots. More than half of the times I've met dolphins in the ocean, I've felt pretty threatened, and once I was rammed, hard enough to bruise my abdomen significantly; sharks are a lot easier for a diver to understand and predict than dolphins, and on the whole, I'd rather encounter big sharks at depth on a wreck dive, that a school of playful dolphins, on the surface, while waiting for a pickup boat at the end of a drift dive.

Training dolphins to interact with humans in a generally safe way requires that they be separated from natural surroundings and social groupings. If you want to have the experience of safely swimming with such animals, you should seek a facility that does such activities, with due regard for the welfare of the animals.

If you want to risk being an aquatic toy, or possibly lunch, randomly seek dolphins in the open ocean.
posted by paulsc at 10:28 PM on January 3, 2011 [11 favorites]

There places where, if you cannot swim with the dolphins, you can participate in wild dolphins grabbing a bite to eat. But there's no closed off lagoon there.
posted by smoke at 1:45 AM on January 4, 2011

How do you feel about zoos? If you enjoy going to a zoo, then swimming with captive dolphins might be a good experience for you. If, like me, you can't stand to go into a zoo, no matter how "natural," then you'd probably better skip it.

And I totally second paulsc about the unpredictability and danger of wild dolphins. I'm not a diver, but I was intrigued by a news story about dolphins harassing and killing porpoises, and sometimes bringing porpoise bodies to research vessels who were studying the dolphins. I emailed the research organization ( and asked them if it was true. I got a very nice email back saying that they believe the dolphins are playing, and bringing the bodies as a friendly gesture (as opposed to "watch it or this could be you, buddy"). They are a complex species, sometimes playful, sometimes "helpful," and sometimes extremely violent. Much like us, actually.
posted by kestralwing at 2:05 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Can't comment on this, but in Glenelg, South Australia, there is a cruise with a cat called the Temptation (google glenelg dolphin cruise) and these are wild dolphins that come visit. We basically leave the harbour, and drive out to the coast, dolphins come for some reason only to this cat.
posted by TrinsicWS at 2:08 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agree that The Cove is exactly about this topic, the capture of dolphins for captivity and subsequent slaughter of the rest.

If you can, watch it and then make your own call, although my vote is a no.
posted by jontyjago at 4:20 AM on January 4, 2011

On a trip to Hawaii, I signed up for a swim with wild dolphins tour and it was a guy with a small boat that took groups of up to 6 out into the Pacific and everyone jumped into the water near a pod of dolphins. Some would come over and show interest, some would keep their distance and others would stay far away. There was no playing. We never got closer than 10 feet from a dolphin as it would swim by.

On the positive side, no one else book the time slot my ex and I had booked so it was the two of us and the guide in flippers and snorkels and dozens of dolphins all around. On the negative side, if the dolphins did want to ram us, we were the only targets.

We spent 2 hours and it cost about $150. Well worth it. (I live on Long Island and refuse to swim in the ocean here, FWIW.) Compared to what you're describing and what others have posted here, I'd personally pass.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:19 AM on January 4, 2011

You can swim (as I have swum) right out to wild dolphins off the coast of Delaware, at Cape Henlopen State Park. No lifeguard, and you're a good 100 yards from shore, so, hey, at your own risk. But it's thrilling.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:19 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm no animal rights activist... I eat meat, I wear leather, etc. However, I'd personally have problems with participating the type of activity you describe. If the various ways in which humans impact animals could be plotted on a chart from least-to-most frivolous (say, "killing a wild boar for food while stranded on Lord of the Flies Isle" to "buying a chinchilla coat in Palm Springs"), "swimming with captive dolphins" would be WAY up there with the frivolity. And let's not mince words... they may have a pretty swanky habitat as far as these things go, but they ARE captive.

This also begs the question... if it's not okay for a resort to do it, is it okay for Sea World to do it? How about a zoo? And I gots no answers as far as those go... just my gut reaction, which says, "Please don't do it."
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:23 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

[comment removed - please do not start a derail about zoos. OP has email as do other commenters. Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:12 AM on January 4, 2011

Thank you, all. I hate zoos, & as much as I thought I wanted this experience, captive dolphins is not something I can support. Decision made, none if my cash will go to Dolphin Discovery.
posted by BillBishop at 7:56 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Like many have pointed out, it's a pretty brutal industry that provides such places with their captive dolphins. I wouldn't do it.

Are there any tourist surf-spots in the Cayman Islands? Why not rent a board and take a surf lesson. If the local dolphin population is anything like SoCal, chances are pretty good a few dolphins will swim by eventually.

I frequently see dolphins swimming in relatively close proximity while surfing. They must be pretty accustomed to the presence of humans, 'cause they don't seem particularly shy; often getting to within 10 feet or so. I wouldn't call that swimming with dolphins so much as swimming near dolphins, but I'm still thrilled every time I see them out there. Plus you're not likely to get to watch them jumping and playing in the waves in some captive lagoon. Heck, sometimes getting to see dolphins is the only thing that redeems an otherwise lackluster surf-session (I kinda suck, so lackluster surf sessions are not infrequent.).

Even if you didn't see any dolphins in the lineup, you might enjoy the surf lesson.

I've never taken a lesson from a surf school though, so I'm not sure exactly how it works. Chances are you might end up spending your first lesson close to shore in the whitewater. You might want to check on that before you sign up. Perhaps mention that part of your motivation is seeing dolphins in the wild, moreso than standing up on the board.
posted by zen_spider at 11:15 AM on January 4, 2011

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