While on holiday in Egypt in 2013, when I heard that you could swim with dolphins in Sharm el Sheikh I leapt at the chance. This was a long-held dream of mine and I was over the moon. It was a spur of the moment decision that I now regret. I’ve since researched the facts and spoken to experts. Here’s what you should know before you decide whether or not to go swimming with dolphins.
Why I regret swimming with dolphins
Before we had left England I had looked at what excursions were available and for other ideas of things to do in Egypt but I had not come across swimming with dolphins as an option. I had heard of dolphin enclosures that are connected to the sea where people can swim with the dolphins. In this case, the dolphins are free to come and go as they please. I was under the impression that this was the type of encounter I would experience.
Having paid up (a lot!) it occurred to me that I should make sure. When I checked, I found out that they would be captive dolphins. I was told not to worry as they had been born in captivity, as if that made it alright!
I was now in two minds. Should I go as planned, then write about the experience and, more importantly, see what I could find out about the ethics of swimming with dolphins and share my findings. Alternatively, should I simply not go?
What is it like to go swimming with dolphins in captivity?
When I arrived at the pool it felt so very wrong to see the dolphins in captivity and in such a small pool. Again I questioned my morals and whether I should simply walk away. In the end, I decided to go ahead. The dolphins’ ‘owners’ already had my money and would hardly care if I walked out. Plus at the very least I could share the experience with you and leave you to make up your own minds as I’m sure many of you share my dream of swimming with dolphins.
above: Me being ‘kissed’ by two dolphins, not the close encounter I had hoped for.
Irrelevant of the morals, the experience itself was a letdown and nothing much more than a photo-shoot, as each person took it, in turn, to pose with the dolphins in one way then another. Neill had paid £10 just to come along to watch and to video it. While he was allowed to take photographs, videos were not allowed. Also, spectators were not able to walk around the pool to the side where we would be. This was so that the dolphinarium could try to sell us their outrageously priced photographs and video.
I did not enjoy the experience at all and was left feeling sad and guilty.
The facts about swimming with dolphins
Since coming back from Egypt, I’ve contacted a number of organisations and here is my interpretation of the information given to me, principally by Laura from the International Marine Mammal Project, Earth Island Institute.
Why is it cruel to keep dolphins in captivity?
Dolphins are known to be highly intelligent, self-aware animals with strong family bonds, just like you or I.
Dolphins in the wild do not jump through hoops, eat dead fish, wave, kiss or drag people through the water as they hold onto their fins. Captive dolphins are kept hungry as part of their training and to ensure they perform. Without routine starvation, the dolphins would not perform.
Wild dolphins constantly travel, covering thousands of miles every year experiencing a wide diversity of natural habitat and the freedom to deep dive. Can you imagine what it must be like to be confined to a small, unnatural pool, where you are forced to go endlessly round in circles?
Is it safe to swim with dolphins?
The pools where these types of encounters are held are generally not very big. The dolphins are excreting into the water you are swimming in and diseases can be transmitted between humans and dolphins so it’s not a healthy situation for either of us.
Did you know? Orcas or as they are often called, killer whales, aren’t whales at all. Orcas are actually dolphins. The largest dolphins there are.
It is equally inhumane to keep orcas in captivity and over the years a number of trainers have been killed, the most recent in 2010 in Sea World Orlando when their most experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was killed following a “Dine with Shamu” show as reported by the BBC. The 2013 film Black Fish is a very moving and eye-opening account of events leading up to Dawn’s death. For more information please visit Keep Whales Wild.
Capturing dolphins from the wild
Most dolphins held in captivity were captured from the wild.
Dolphins live in highly complex, close-knit social units, known as pods. The capturing of dolphins isn’t just extremely stressful for the individual taken, it deeply affects the whole pod. Can you imagine what it must be like to have a member of your family kidnapped?
Worse still in the process of capturing a dolphin the entire pod maybe killed. In Taiji, Japan, when a few dolphins in a pod are selected for captivity the whole pod is driven a shore and the majority are inhumanely killed. Thousands are killed in this way each year.
If tourists, like myself (guilty as charged) stopped going to these facilities, then this inhumane treatment of dolphins would stop.
Swimming with dolphins in the wild
Not long after I returned from Egypt, I came across a book ‘Swimming with Dolphins, Tracking Gorillas – How to have the world’s best wildlife encounters‘ and immediately bought a copy.
It’s packed with advice about how to have a great variety of wildlife encounters without harming the animals or their environment. Ian recommends a number of ethical companies that offer dolphin swims in the wild, one of which is Dolphin Swims in Egypt.
“The only sound is the hypnotic chant of our engine as we chug out to sea. Then to the left comes a splash. A dolphin! They’re surfing in our wake now, playing, squeaking. We cut the engine and I slip overboard as quietly as possible, surrounded by whistles and clicks. Suddenly there they are, emerging from the blue, six, no seven, heading straight towards me. A mother and calf encircle, clicking, smiling round and round… Then it’s over and I watch them fade back into the deep.” Amanda Stafford, Dolphin Swims (Egypt, Red Sea)
Surely that is how an encounter should be. But even swimming with dolphins in the wild isn’t always an ethical encounter. Some tour operators will chase the dolphins in order to give the tourists that elusive encounter. A responsible operator will limit the number of boats visiting a pod of dolphins, give the dolphins enough space to take the lead and would never allow you to touch a dolphin. Some people believe that even this is too much and that the only way to responsibly observe dolphins and whales is from dry land.
For more information read Is it wrong to swim with dolphins? By Elizabeth Diffin, BBC News Magazine
Qualifying as a responsible whale and dolphin watching guide
2018 update: Since writing this article in 2013, I have learnt a lot about responsible animal encounters. I’ve been grizzly bear and black bear, as well as whale watching several times in Canada. In the summer of 2018, I qualified as a responsible whale watching guide with the World Cetacean Alliance. The WCA is a fabulous global collective raising awareness amongst the public and whale and dolphin watching businesses around the world, as well as offering training and developing a set of global ethical guidelines. They also have an excellent free app to help you find responsible whale or dolphin watching experiences around the world. Just search for the World Cetacean Alliance in the app store.
Find out more about training to be a responsible dolphin and whale watching guide here.
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