Swimming With Dolphins: Love or Exploitation?

March 18, 2019

Thousands of dolphins are kept in captivity around the world, mostly for the entertainment of tourists. Certainly it’s no fun for the dolphins.

How did I spend my winter vacation? I went with my husband to Roatan, a reef-ringed tropical island off the north coast of Honduras, where we spent a lot of time sitting in the yard of our rented beach shack watching perversion in action.

I tried to ignore it, pretending it didn’t exist. But I couldn’t help observing again and again how groups of tourists were dropped into a roped-off pen where they could “swim” with dolphins. Even though this attraction is called “the ultimate dolphin encounter,” the reality is that the tourists wade with dolphins in waist-deep water. The dolphins, 19 altogether, belong to Anthony’s Key Resort and are a major tourist attraction. The dolphin lovers come by land and by sea, by the busload and by boat. The resort’s dolphin program calls itself the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences.

Like other facilities where dolphins are kept in captivity, this resort plays the science card to give a lucrative business the veneer of scientific legitimacy. “Ongoing behavioral studies and medical morphometric data has been collected since the facility opened” in 1989, according to the institute’s website. Marine scientist Dr. Naomi Rose, an activist against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, summarized this prevalent scientific cover story: “About the only thing we have learned from research of captive cetaceans is that they shouldn’t be in captivity.”

The Roatan dolphins are penned in a shallow, two-acre turquoise lagoon. The cheapest “swim” with the dolphins costs $89. Every day I watched tourists wade in the lagoon while a few dolphins swam around them and performed tricks. The dolphins did aerial flips and a stunt we came to call the moonwalk. At a signal from a trainer, a dolphin stands up in the water and propels itself backwards by vigorously moving the fluke. Any performance is rewarded with fishy treats.

One can also buy a $139 “dorsal ride” called the Action Swim. Kissing costs extra. The tourists line up and, one after another, get photographed while being “kissed” by a dolphin. The tourist bends down a bit, the trainer lifts an arm, the dolphin comes up and for a few seconds holds its bottlenose to the tourist’s face.

The camera clicks, the trainer’s arm goes down, the dolphin flops back in the water. Same procedure for the next love-seeker in line until everybody gets their adorable, unforgettable picture. It’s ready for purchase when exiting through the gift shop. The dolphins get pimped and paid with fishy treats, while the resort makes a lot of money. Now is that love, or is it prostitution?

Anthony’s Key Resort even offers encounters with dolphins “in the wild.” For only $149, scuba divers can swim out into deeper waters with a trainer and two or three well-trained male dolphins who have been briefly freed from the pen. Pictures are taken. This adventure is labeled “Unstructured. Untamed. Unmatched.” The pictures give the impression that the scuba divers encountered and interacted with wild dolphins. Then it’s back into the pen.

Every day I wondered who would pay to touch, be touched, and “kissed” by a dolphin? These tourists must love dolphins, but what kind of love is that? Even the most benighted among them must have heard that being in captivity is torture for dolphins. If the Institute for Marine Sciences would convey any dolphin science to their customers, these tourists might know that at sea these highly intelligent creatures are always on the move, traveling thousands of miles, that they are complex social mammals that need a lot of space to live in, and that they have remarkable communication skills and memory. Have none of these dolphin-love-seeking tourists seen the documentary The Cove, or heard of the brutality involved when capturing dolphins?

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