Personally I wouldn’t know, I love dolphins but it’s not something that has ever appealed to me. I love bears, and they do look so very cuddly, but I’d never consider going anywhere near one! This may make you want to slap me and tell me that I’m a weirdo, self-righteous campaigner (I imagine for the dolphin thing, rather than the bear thing), but today I received yet another complaint about the state of Turkey’s dolphinariums. It makes me so sad that people part with their hard-earned money and then regret it, worse still, get ill or injured, all to the detriment of the dolphins that they love so much.
So, here are some details that I would really like people to consider before taking the plunge; and if you have had a bad experience then I’d like you to tell me all about it. As George Orwell once said “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”, so here goes...
Where do the animals come from?
There are no international standards for keeping or swimming with dolphins. A significant number of them are captured from the wild. The captive industry is also very hard to follow, with no national or international central databases reporting where animals have been transferred from, injuries that have occurred (to the dolphins, trainers or participants), or how they have died. The industry is very secretive, with large PR machines. You may have read about the facility on Curacao (Netherland Antilles) that confiscated all video footage after an ‘accident’ that happened there. Many facilities do not rely on repeat custom, so it wouldn’t matter if you’re so disgusted you wouldn’t go back – they already have your money. So in the words of Green Day “Know your enemy” and please read on.
So, how does paying to swim with captive dolphins have a direct link to them being captured from the wild?
At one point the number of dolphinariums began to decline as people began to question the morality of keeping dolphins in tanks, or sea pens - which are equally captive, for human entertainment. However, that number is again on the increase due to rising popularity of swimming with dolphins. I have to ask at this point – what’s the difference? Is a dolphin show, choreographed to loud music, different from a dolphin being choreographed to swim with someone in the water? They get treats for doing what their trainers tell them, mostly i.e. they are habitutaed (not domesticated).
In places like the Caribbean and Turkey, such facilities are popping up like ice-cream stands on a hot summer’s day. Once one resort has one, every businessperson wants to cash in on the popularity of swimming with dolphins, so other resorts then follow suit. As dolphins do not breed well in captivity, they are captured from the wild to supply this increasing demand.
For instance, in 2006 Turkey revoked a ban on catching dolphins. Permission was given for the capture of 30 bottlenose dolphins in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, despite the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin being classed as Endangered and the Mediterranean population being classed as Vulnerable (IUCN Red List). These captures were confirmed in November 2007 - 23 dolphins had been captured in local waters. To make matters worse, in 2008, 12 bottlenose dolphins were imported into Turkey from the notorious Japanese ‘Drive Hunts’ (www.drivenbydemand.org).
In the Caribbean, dolphins are imported and exported so often it is even harder to keep track of what trade goes on. However, from our sources we can see that dolphins are imported into the Caribbean from Cuba, Mexico (before the ban on exports), Honduras and Puerto Rico. A company called Ocean Embassy proposed the annual capture of 80 wild bottlenose dolphins from Panamanian waters. Thankfully, following condemnation from WDCS, other NGOs, and reputable cetacean biologists, the Government of Panama halted the permit process. Ocean Embassy have since left the country. Dolphin Cove in Jamaica holds 18 wild caught dolphins. Since it opened in 2001 there have been at least 8 mortalities. The Jamaican government requested Dolphin Cove submit a captive breeding proposal to reduce dolphin takes from the wild. However, this proposal (never approved) called for 50 wild caught dolphins to be imported from Cuba. Dolphin Fantaseas in Antigua (now Dolphin Discovery) proposed to capture 12 bottlenose dolphins annually from Antiguan waters. The Antigua and Barbuda cabinet revoked this permit before it reached court.
There have also been appalling welfare reports from Anguilla (algae-ridden tank and lack of filtration system), Tortola (water quality issues affecting dolphins), Antigua-Barbuda (dolphin welfare issues plus environmental issues causing further welfare issues whereby Dolphin Discovery ignored government requests to move the dolphins. Dolphin Discovery have since left Antigua and have been denied permission to return) and Curacao (The Netherland Antilles government have admitted difficulties in obtaining already captive dolphins to meet the requirements of the Sea Aquarium). It was on Curacao (mentioned above) that a participant on a swim-with programme managed to smuggle out video footage of a dolphin that reportedly purposely crashed into four swimmers. Aggression among captive dolphins is well known - the list goes on. I am somewhat anthropomorphising, but yes, I’d get aggressive if I didn’t have to work but someone made me – wouldn’t you?
“Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason.”
Douglas Adams - So Long, and Thanks for the Fish.
Can you put your faith in DAT?
More and more swim-with facilities are now also offering Dolphin Assisted Therapy. DAT seems to get mentioned in nearly every other magazine these days. While I understand people’s desire to find a cure, or at least a respite for their loved ones, it’s the unfair and blatantly biased advertising of DAT by non-specialists that concerns me. This surely pulls on the heartstrings of those considering it. What really annoys me about such articles is that they are often hugely biased and never give the full picture; to me this seems utterly irresponsible.
In fact, Governments have been slow to develop guidelines on DAT and the international organization under whose umbrella regulation of DAT should fall, the International Association of Human-Animal Interactions Organizations (IAHAIO), has absolved responsibility for DAT by producing guidelines on AATs (Animal Assisted Therapies) which exclude it (see report below).
WDCS will obviously be expected to speak out regarding the conservation and welfare issues for the dolphins involved in DAT programmes, but we have also looked at this issue from a human welfare point of view too. DAT involves two highly vulnerable groups of individuals. So again – if you are considering or know anyone considering DAT, I implore you to please read our report first to make sure you have read all the facts.
My esteemed colleagues worked closely with a broad spectrum of specialists including scientists, a DAT pioneer, the Autism Society (UK), special-needs workers, and the American Veterinary Association among others. The report isn’t as scary as it sounds either, about 15 pages of easily set out and digestible facts. If you are considering DAT then I highly recommend reading it. You may discover something more suitable for your family, more affordable and accessible and therefore something you can all enjoy far more often.
WDCS Report: - Dolphin Assisted Therapy: Can you put your faith in DAT?