Should we swim with dolphins?
Swimming with dolphins, whether captive or wild, is an item that can be found on most people’s bucket lists. However there is now evidence to suggest that this is directly harmful to the dolphins, and Ian Wood’s experience with swimming with dolphins has led him to question this industry and its effects on the dolphins.
Many years ago, snorkelling off the coast of Mozambique, I heard the unmistakable sound of clicks and squeaks. Seconds later – emerging from the blue – a pod of Bottlenose dolphins appeared, swimming towards me at high speed before veering off and streaking away. But then they returned. Slower this time, spinning round, turning on their sides, exchanging eye contact from barely a metre away. A blissful encounter with wild animals – on their terms.
Interactions like this are one of the great pleasures of the natural world. Dolphins are capable of swimming at speeds of up to 40km per hour which makes my free diving efforts look positively cumbersome. The slightest wave of a flipper and they are out of sight before you can say so long and thanks for all the fish. I’m just a temporary guest in their environment and the fact that they’ve decided to check me out is a privilege and an honour.
Sadly the overwhelming majority of human dolphin interactions aren’t like this. An entire industry has developed to satisfy our whims to swim with these iconic mammals causing considerable problems. It is no wonder, then, that the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society considers swimming with dolphins ‘inappropriate’ in most places.
There are two types of swim with dolphin programmes that need to be considered separately:
Swimming with dolphins in captivity or ‘semi’ captivity
To my dismay, I’ve come across captive dolphins in a variety of places including swimming pools and cordoned off areas of sea. Sometimes these are luxury resorts aimed at the family market, where at a pre-booked time you are guaranteed an encounter. In order to supply such places, entire pods are rounded up from the wild to find suitable specimens. Many of these die in transit and the rest are often butchered for meat. There is no such thing as semi-captivity and by visiting such places people are directly contributing to the slaughter of dolphins.
Wild swim dolphin programmes
During the research for my book ‘Swimming with Dolphins, Tracking Gorillas’ I’ve witnessed the best and worst of this practice. In places such as Kizimkazi in southern Zanzibar, up to ten fully laden boats head out at the same time in search of the one resident pod and it’s not uncommon for the captains to compete with each other to drop their group closer. The resulting interference interrupts the dolphins’ hunting and resting to such an extent that numbers in these areas have drastically declined. At the other end of the spectrum, two swim-with-dolphin operators in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique, have succeeded in gaining better protection for not just dolphins but other marine life too.
If you are tempted by a wild dolphin swim programme, ask the following questions to ascertain how they run their trips.
• What is their expertise in dolphins and conservation?
• How many boats are used at any one time in the area for dolphin swims? (More than one can lead to harassment)
• How many people are allowed in the water at any one time? (Ideally four or less)
• Do they provide training on how to behave both on a boat and in the water?
• What is their policy if they find dolphins resting or hunting? (Water entry should be denied)
If you’re not satisfied with any of the answers, then by engaging in this activity you could be endangering the very animals you wish to see.
Words and photos by Ian Wood
Ian’s website: www.agoodplace.co.uk