For many, swimming with dolphins is either a favourite holiday past-time or an activity to tick off the bucket list. Yet many fail to ensure that their experience is safe for the dolphins as well. In 2013 the popu- lar documentary Blackfish raised public awareness concerning the controversies of the marine-tourism industry. Since then, questions and issues surrounding the captivity of these highly intelligent marine animals have been highly publicised. Questions regarding the ethics behind keeping these mammals in captivity for human enjoyment are finally being addressed worldwide.
The Bottle-nosed dolphin is the most well-known of the species and subsequently the star of the majority of ‘swim with the dolphin’ pro- grammes. They are highly emotional and intelligent creatures that have a characteristic ‘smiling face’, making them a seemingly friendly companion to swim with.
For years, popular culture has recognised dolphin intelligence and how it is only comparable to that of humans. The famous opening scene from the 2005 blockbuster The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy even satirises the common knowledge of dolphin intelligence, claiming that they know more about the world than humans do. Indeed, a study conducted in Japan in 2014 concluded that dolphins and humans both view the world in surprisingly similar ways. In this sense, many critics of marine captivity are surprised that whilst the similarities between dolphins and humans are very much public knowledge, the dolphin species are still subjected to leading unfulfilling lives, being captive performers for human enjoyment. The professor of Ethics at Loyola Marymount University concluded that because of the high intelligence of dolphins, they should be considered as ‘‘non-human persons who qualify for moral understanding as individuals’’.
“Captive dolphins live only to half the age of their wild counterparts”
Such a statement truly embodies the over-arching question surrounding the captivity of dolphins, which is: is this ethical?
PETA regards the captivity of dolphins for tourist purposes to be unethical. The organisation, which advocates the ethical treatment of animals, argues that dolphin captivity on ‘swim with the dolphins’ programmes shortens a dolphin’s life-span, with captive dolphins living to only half the age of their wild counterparts. Confinement can also lead to behavioural issues in dolphins, which raises alarm for the safety of the swimmers that are interacting with them.
A further issue surrounding the captivity of dolphins is how they are captured. In order to accommodate the vast popularity of ‘swim with the dolphins programmes’, increasing numbers of the mammals are taken from the wild and placed in marine-life institutions. The danger is that this leads to a decrease in wild populations whilst also endangering the dolphins in the act of capturing them.
While the captivity of dolphins is often seen as negative, it is important to consider the benefits ‘swim with the dolphins’ programmes can have on the local community. Poorer areas can see a huge rise in tourism due to the popularity of dolphins. Recently, The University of Leicester have conducted a study into the benefits that swimming with dolphins can provide in helping mild to moderate depression.
There will always be controversy surrounding the captivity of dolphins. Many people are reluctant to admit the harsh realities of the marine-tourism industry simply because of the enjoyment that swimming with dolphins can bring. It is important to fully research the institution involved in dolphin tourism. In more recent years, tourist providers have been promoting swimming with wild dolphins as a more sustainable activity; it should be noted that these programmes also hold their own ethical concerns.
“Both dolphins and humans view the world in surprisingly similiar ways’’
In order to travel responsibly and to appreciate these intelligent animals without harming them, travellers should opt for “dolphin watching” or “whale watching” excursions. Such trips can remind holiday-makers that dolphins are not there to create ‘Kodak moments’ but should be appreciated as the intelligent, majestic and most importantly, wild, animals that they are.