Swimming with dolphins

Swimming or interacting with dolphins in captivity is increasing in popularity. Unfortunately, most participants in these activities are unaware of the problems surrounding them, and the negative impact on the dolphins involved.

Visiting a marine park or aquarium

Interacting with captive dolphins at a marine park or aquarium may seem like fun. But the harsh reality is kept hidden. Many people don’t realize that dolphins are living a stressful and often dramatically shortened life in captivity. Many have been captured and taken from their families in the wild.

These intelligent, social and wide-ranging creatures are forced to live in artificial, confined conditions, away from their natural family groups. Many die very young during capture, transport or in their tanks or enclosures.

Captured from the wild

Dolphins continue to be taken from the wild to supply the growing demand for swimming with dolphins and dolphin encounters. 

  • Methods used to capture and transport dolphins can be shockingly cruel and many animals die during capture operations or in transit.
  • Very often, dolphins are captured from populations that are already under threat from other human activities.

Life in captivity

 In recent years there has been much information on the negative effects of captivity on orcas. What about the forgotten whales and dolphins?

  • In captivity, dolphins have a lower survival rate than in the wild.
  • They are unable to communicate, hunt, roam, mate and play as they would in the wild.
  • The stress of their confinement often results in behavioral abnormalities, illness, and lowered resistance to disease and death.

Four dolphins in a concrete pool, chins resting on the edge

Injury and disease

  • Dolphins are wild creatures and unpredictable, even when well trained. Swimmers have been known to incur bruises, scratches, abrasions, bites and even broken bones.
  • Disease transmission is a serious concern, as dolphins carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans and vice versa.

Exposure and pollution

Many facilities keep the dolphins in enclosures on the coast, and recent hurricanes have had serious after-effects.

  • Dolphins in some facilities face injury from falling debris or being washed out to sea.
  • Both land-based pools and sea pens close to shore may contain only very shallow water, which can get too hot in the sun.
  • Resorts may also contain high pollution levels, increasing the risk of illness and even death.
  • Some dolphin sea pens may even harm the local marine environment - a result of dolphin waste contributing to excessive algal growth.

No Escape

  • In captivity, dolphins cannot escape from human swimmers when they do not want to interact with them.
  • Interactions with swimmers can lead to heightened stress and anxiety, which is often managed through medication in captivity.
  • Dolphins are at risk of collisions with swimmers and other dolphins; and fingernails and jewelry can damage their delicate skin.

Child riding on live dolphin in a pool

Fear and disappointment

  • Dolphins are large and powerful, and entering the water with them can be frightening for swimmers. 
  • Many people report a feeling of disappointment after a dolphin encounter or swim-with activity, as the experience is far from the natural wildlife encounter they were looking for.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy, or DAT, is an increasingly popular Animal Assisted Therapy made available through a growing number of programmes around the world and marketed as offering a cure or respite from human illness or disability. However, there is no scientific evidence to prove that the therapy is effective and it is not recommended as a treatment for people with autism.

Swimming with wild whales or dolphins – the alternative?

In many countries, feeding and/or harassing dolphins in the wild is illegal and harmful. While many people love the idea of swimming with wild dolphins, it is very difficult to ensure that it is not an intrusive or stressful experience for the dolphins involved.  In some locations, dolphins are repeatedly disturbed by boats dropping swimmers in the water next to them and it has been documented that dolphins will leave their usual homes in favor of quieter areas. Disruption to feeding, resting, nursing and other behavior may have a long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of individual dolphins and populations.

Other concerns include:

  • Safety of dolphins and swimmers.
  • Injury to dolphins by boat propellers.
  • Risk of dolphins becoming dependent on humans for food, as some boat operators entice them towards the swimmers using food. 
  • Solitary Dolphins - WDC also has concerns for ‘solitary sociable’ or ’friendly’ dolphins. These individuals are extremely vulnerable and have their own unique set of issues.  

How you can help

Don't visit aquariums and zoos holding whales and dolphins in captivity.

Go to see dolphins and whales in the wild with a responsible tour operator, like a Whale SENSE operator the US. This supports the growing area of ecotourism. Better still, watch them from land where possible.

Make a donation or adopt a whaleWhen you make a donation or adopt a whale, WDC uses those funds to  

  • gather and review research showing the harmful effects of captivity
  • work on the establishment of sanctuaries for whales and dolphins currently in captivity
  • meet with legislators, aquarium, and key regulatory members to advocate for increases in standards for captive whales and dolphins and protections in the wild
  • pursue legislation to end captivity once and for all!