Humans are fascinated by the intelligent and gregarious nature of the dolphin. As one consequence of this fascination, dolphins are commercially exploited in marine parks, aquaria and "swim-with-the-dolphins" (SWTD) attractions worldwide. In the United States, the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) lost its regulatory authority over SWTD attractions in 1994; the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) now has sole jurisdiction over them. The Humane Society of the United States is strongly opposed to captive SWTD attractions and believes these programs, even if strictly regulated, pose an immediate threat to the safety of both human and dolphin participants.

Life in the wild

The HSUS opposes the capture of all marine mammals from the wild for any type of public display or entertainment. The very nature of these animals makes them uniquely unsuited to confinement. In the wild, dolphins live in large groups (called pods), often in tight family units. Social bonds often last for many years. In some species, they last for a lifetime.

Dolphins travel long distances each day, sometimes swimming in a straight line for a hundred miles, other times remaining in a certain area for hours or days, moving several miles along a coastline and then turning to retrace their path.

These marine mammals can dive up to several hundred feet and can stay underwater for 15 minutes or more. They spend only 10 to 20% of their time at the surface.

The sea is to dolphins much as the air is to birds—it is a three-dimensional environment, where they can move up and down and side to side. But dolphins don't stop to perch. They never come to shore. Dolphins are always swimming, even when they "sleep." They are always aware, and always moving. Understanding this, it is difficult to imagine the tragedy of life in captivity for these ocean creatures.

Program profile

NMFS estimated in 1990 that over 40,000 people swam with captive dolphins in the United States. That number has increased dramatically in the last decade and a half and the typical cost today is about $100–125 per interactive session. SWTD proponents claim educational, recreational and therapeutic motivations and benefits. Sessions last a half hour on average and many programs offer videotaped documentation of the experience. Most programs allow swimmers as young as ten years of age to participate.

The United States now has between 14 and 18 SWTD attractions, some of which are in dedicated SWTD facilities while others are associated with traditional dolphin show exhibits in marine parks and aquariums. SWTD programs provide guests "educational opportunities" in a wide range of natural and unnatural environments, ranging from sea pens in tropical waters (as with several facilities in Florida) to concrete tanks (such as the facilities at Sea World).

Several SWTD programs offer "dolphin-assisted therapy" (DAT) for patients (including young children) suffering from, among other conditions, Down's Syndrome, cerebral palsy, cancer, head and spinal injuries, or autism. However, there is no evidence that interacting with dolphins has any greater therapeutic effect than interacting with domesticated animals, such as puppies, kittens, or farm animals. There is no need to imprison wildlife to benefit humans.

SWTD attractions overseas are an even greater problem, because regulation is often absent and conditions poor. In some facilities, pregnant females have been overworked. Some dolphins are contained in small pools, often surrounded by jagged, rusty fences or located near sewage outfalls. They may be fed rotten fish, and have been known to suffer from disease and starvation. Regions that have seen an explosion in the growth of these programs include the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

There are several attractions in tropical resort areas around the world. For example, there are at least two facilities in the Bahamas; the Dolphin Quest facility in Tahiti originally held two wild-caught rough-toothed dolphins (a deep-water species) in a shallow lagoon. A facility in La Paz, Mexico was the focus of extraordinary controversy when it captured eight dolphins in late December 2000 from waters off the Baja peninsula and a female dolphin died only a few weeks later. It was finally closed in late 2003 when four more dolphins died after a hurricane—the remaining three dolphins went to another facility.

Most foreign facilities capture their dolphins directly from the wild. Capture is highly traumatic for wild dolphins and may cause an often fatal condition known as capture stress or capture myopathy. In addition, the status of the populations from which dolphins are captured is often unknown and the removal of even a few individuals may have negative impacts on the pod members left behind.

Safety concerns

Captive dolphins may exhibit an assimilation tendency, expecting humans to fulfill the natural social roles of their wild counterparts. They may become submissive or sexually aggressive when interacting with humans. Dolphins in SWTD programs have demonstrated agitated and aggressive behavior under the stressful conditions of forced interaction.

These behaviors may result in serious physical injury to swimmers. SWTD programs have reported human injuries including lacerations, tooth rakes, internal injuries, broken bones, and shock. There is the potential for dolphins to suffer from unnatural exposure to human bacterial and viral infections, and they have experienced stress-related conditions, including ulcers.

What you can do

You can help the HSUS ensure the maximum possible safety for "swim-with-the-dolphins" programs. Write or visit SWTD attractions and express your concerns. If they refuse to close, insist that only captive-born bottlenose dolphins be used, to limit as much as possible any increase in captures of wild dolphins to stock present and future attractions. There are currently almost 400 bottlenose dolphins in captivity in the United States, with many more in facilities around the world, many of whom are used in breeding programs. If these programs are as successful as captive facilities claim, then capture from the wild can and should be eliminated.

Question program safety records for both humans and dolphins. Demand adequate care and conditions for the dolphins, including feeding them restaurant-quality fish and requiring large pool size; insist on the provision of refuge areas, where dolphins can go at will if they do not want to interact with people; insist on limited working hours for the dolphins; and demand low swimmer-to-dolphin ratios (no more than two swimmers per dolphin). In the United States, enforcement of the current regulations has been suspended since April 1999; contact APHIS and demand that this suspension be lifted immediately.

Consider bypassing hotels, resorts, and cruise lines that offer SWTD attractions to tourists. Write to them and let them know tourism should not depend on the invasive exploitation of wildlife. Examples in addition to those mentioned already include resorts in the Caribbean island nations of Jamaica, Antigua & Barbuda, Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Aruba, and the Dominican Republic, all of which already have or have recently proposed or begun building SWTD facilities.

Contact your U.S. senators and representative and tell them to support an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibiting the capture of marine mammals from the wild for public display during the Act's next re-authorization.