Swimming with the dolphins

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that some of the national newspapers I read are carrying travel ads promoting “swim-with-the-dolphin” (SWTD) experiences. These ads, slick and vibrant, never fail to impress me for their summertime ubiquity — despite the fact that the publications I read cater to people who should know better.

After all, most educated Americans know that dolphins and whales are NOT meant to live in captivity — much less swim with affluent children and honeymooning newlyweds in the name of “eco-friendliness” and “education” so they can earn big bucks for their keepers.

The Argument Against It

In case you’re feeling not-so-sure on this issue, here’s a quick list detailing why most animal-welfare-minded people come down hard against this practice:

  • Dolphins are uniquely ill-suited to confinement. They are social creatures that live in large pods and travel forty-plus miles a day, with 80 percent of that time spent beneath the surface of the water. SWTD facilities can never measure up.
  • With the explosion of the SWTD industry over the past twenty or so years, the global trade in wild-caught dolphins has grown tremendously. Even if the facility you elect to use claims to rely on captive-bred animals alone, your dollars are nonetheless effectively supporting a global trade in wild animals taken from their pods in typically violent ways.

Yet the popularity of these places seems to be expanding. If the pervasive ads weren’t enough to prove it, the quick trip I took to the Florida Keys last month did. If the highway’s billboards and Google’s local suggestions are any measure, the industry is more than alive and well in my South Florida backyard.

Which brings me to the point of this post: Why?

Why is it that people who obviously love dolphins and care about their welfare don’t seem to understand that swimming with dolphins is a BAD thing?

Preying on the Well Intentioned

The answer, I’m afraid, hearkens back to the glossiness of those ads and the industry’s agile self-promotional abilities. Let me explain:

SWTD facilities have a reputation for being highly profitable. At $100 to $300 for every 15-minute swim, the industry labors under an overwhelming incentive to promote itself, and it’s done so masterfully by depicting itself as the nation’s number-one dolphin protector. By targeting those who are most likely to want to protect dolphins as customers, it’s managed to establish a stronghold of support among the educated and the affluent.

What’s worse than actually confining these animals, training them to do your bidding, and contributing to the devastation of their species? Training us that, by so doing, we’re doing dolphins a favor and the world a service.

It’s a sickening irony that those most willing to help are those most likely to get taken in. Which is why I believe the industry arguably does the world the most damage by promoting itself as “eco-friendly” and “educational.” In so doing, it fosters the misperception that the world needs more of these places, and that people who disagree are joy-killing animal-rights radicals.

Be Informed Before You Go

Of course, you’re free to believe whatever you want. And if you do choose to frequent these facilities, I’m free to think you drink their Kool-Aid at another species’ peril. But don’t take my word for it. Why not do some investigating before you decide?

  • The Cove: This documentary ripped the lid off a Japanese venture luring dolphins into a cove for capture and sale to marine parks and SWTD facilities as well as for slaughter and sale in Japanese supermarkets.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): For primarily environmental reasons, NOAA stands against SWTD facilities. On their website, the organization details many of the negative behavioral issues associated with SWTD facility captive dolphins.

If more people understood the issues behind SWTD programs, maybe we'd all see fewer ads and billboards promoting these practices. And that would be a GOOD thing.