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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Pilot whales pooing © Christopher Swann

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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WDC team at UN Ocean conference

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Confronting yet another captive dolphin facility in the Caribbean: Coral World

Another swim-with-the-dolphin facility has been proposed in the Caribbean.  WDC is no stranger to the seemingly perpetual proposals from existing facilities to either expand their dolphin programs in their current locations, or extend them to other islands, such as what Dolphin Cove Jamaica is attempting to do on the Turks and Caicos Islands. A swim-with dolphin program has been proposed at Coral World Ocean Park on St. Thomas, USVI, using all of the traditional arguments that such a program is necessary to enhance both education and tourism. Although these are usually the two primary justifications for siting a dolphin program in the Caribbean, or anywhere for that matter, we encourage the authorities to consider whether these programs are harmful not only for the dolphins involved in these programs, but the people of St. Thomas and all that travel there.

It is no secret that many of us want to be close to dolphins. The honest truth is that most of us want to be close, sometimes without thinking about the costs to the animals involved, the environment, or personal safety.  In fact, I believe captive facilities have catered to and exploited our love for these animals by packaging an experience that appears to be made from heaven—an opportunity to get up close and personal with these animals in what appears to be a controlled setting and where the animals choose freely to engage in a relationship with us. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The project’s champions state that only captive-borne dolphins will be utilized, assuming that these statements will be enough to preempt the community’s concern that dolphins will be captured from the wild to stock the facility, or from the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, Japan.

Unfortunately, facilities that promote dolphin swim-with programs suggest that the interactions between humans and dolphins are reciprocal—that dolphins seek out these interactions through their own will and desire. Rather, these dolphins are motivated by food in a severely restricted environment, not by a reciprocal desire to be near us. No matter how we might justify these attractions, whether through a veneer of education, or with the hope of attracting tourist revenue and bolstering the local economy, these programs are self-serving prisons for a species that naturally roams hundreds of miles a day, and should never be forced to seek an encounter with us except on its own terms. These programs are nothing more than our entertainment and amusement, at the dolphins’ expense, no matter where these animals come from, and regardless of the facts put forward by Coral World.

Furthermore, dolphin swim-with programs are not all rosy for human participants, either:  injuries occur frequently, and can be serious. An unsuspecting public is not ready for a dolphin that becomes aggressive and either bites, rams or pushes them underwater. These incidents are too numerous to count, but more recently a Swedish tourist was injured near Cancun, Mexico in Isla Mujeres and has vowed never to swim with dolphins again. One high profile incident that was profiled in the media occurred in 2002 where ‘Inside Edition’ journalist Nancy Glass was severely and permanently injured by 500-pound dolphin that fell upon her during a swim-with encounter in the Bahamas.

Furthermore, Coral World’s insistence that it will only utilize captive-born dolphins in its programs should be questioned. We have seen other swim-with facilities within the Caribbean struggle to find captive-born dolphins for their programs, and have resorted to taking them from the wild, primarily from Cuba.  I am certain that although Coral World claims that it will bring in only captive-born animals to its proposed facility, it may indeed end up sourcing these animals from the wild now, or in the future when its dolphins die and need to be replaced.

Whether they take them from the wild or not, Coral World and other swim-with facilities sustain an international trade in dolphins as they perpetuate the very demand for these interaction programs that instigates captures from the wild and transport throughout the Caribbean, and elsewhere.The dolphin trade is indeed lucrative, but many Islands throughout the Caribbean have refused to implement dolphin programs, including Antigua (who had even once proposed capturing dolphins in their waters), Dominica, St. Maarten, and Costa Rica. Others have banned additional imports or exports of dolphins and other marine mammals, including Mexico.

Furthermore, captive dolphin tourism is being questioned and the cruise industry has shown signs of change. More enlightened cruise lines are turning away from promoting swim-with and other captive programs to their patrons.  Recently, Carnival UK noted its change of policy in promoting swim-with activities at ports of call by announcing in their 2010 Sustainability Report that as part of their green initiatives and as a reflection of their commitment to the environment, they have elected not to operate tours which involve interaction with captive dolphins. They join Regent Seven Seas, formerly Radisson Cruise Lines, who made the same decision in 2005 when they took a stand against the capture and exploitation of dolphins by announcing that they would be dropping all swim-with excursions from their rosters.

Inconceivably, many swim-with facilities are located on or near the coast, oftentimes just yards away from where these animals swim free within their family groups. I think Coral World underestimates the concerns of a public that is keen to choose environmentally-responsible activities, and contribute to the welfare and sustainability of both the local environment and a species better left and seen in the wild.There certainly are better alternatives that Coral World could pursue that don’t contribute to the destruction of the marine environment and its amazing inhabitants, and perpetuate a more compassionate ethic that isn’t reliant upon the imprisonment of another sentient species.