Encounters with Dolphins: A Call for Peace Between Species

October 8, 2015 Toni Frohoff

New York Times, January 2003

I Ching on the bowI Ching, a curious bootlenose dolphin visits us in Hervey Bay. Who is watching who! Trish Franklin © 2003

The ancient bond between dolphins and humans bridges two worlds – the worlds of sea and land. The strength of this interspecies relationship is so powerful that dolphins and humans have even risked their lives to help each other in real life as well as myth.

However, humans have exploited this bond by killing, hurting, harassing, and capturing dolphins. Now we have the opportunity to make choices that will strengthen our relationship with this other species, rather than further fragmenting it. To do so, we must go beyond respect for that which is human by becoming appreciative of that which is wild, not because it serves us, but simply because it is. Perhaps, through the indisputable biological interconnectedness of all life on this planet and the need for mutual interspecies respect, the earth is the ultimate elemental example of the spiritual adage “we are one”.

Many people feel a tremendous degree of affection toward dolphins and whales. In the past few decades alone, it has become far more popular to watch dolphins and whales than to kill them in many parts of the world. Although this is certainly cause to celebrate, I do so with hesitation, because many dolphin species are still facing serious wildlife conservation challenges today. The growing popularity of encountering dolphins over the past few decades has brought with it a surge of intensive, commercial, and widespread exploitation of dolphins internationally. Dolphins in captivity and in the wild are widely sought as a source of entertainment and recreation – and, to a lesser degree, for educational and therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately, dolphins around the world are being captured, harmed, and even killed just so people can be close to them. Research, management, and public awareness have lagged sorely behind the expansion of these activities – and at the dolphins’ expense.

In the past few decades, as people have become more passionate about close encounters with dolphins, we have overlooked the most fundamental question: how do these encounters affect the dolphins? Because dolphins generally provide such positive experiences for people, few seriously consider how we affect them. And when people do ponder this, their vision is often blurred by the glamorous media images of dolphins they’ve grown up with, as well as their own enthusiasm. As a result, dolphin-lovers may harm the same animals with whom they seek to interact. It’s important to look beyond the permanently fixed dolphin smile and consider whether dolphins really want to interact with us as much as we think they do – and what the long-term impact of such interactions might be on dolphins’ lives, environments, and societies.

Dolphins in the Wild

Even after almost twenty years of studying dolphin-human interactions, seeing them in the wild still remains an incomparably exquisite experience. Dolphin- and whale-watching is certainly not a new phenomenon, and, when done in moderation, can occur responsibly. Here in Washington, we are fortunate in that we can even view orcas from land (especially on San Juan Island).

But recently, it’s become more common to see boaters and swimmers descending upon wild dolphins in droves around the world. The formalization and commercialization of programs making dolphins more accessible to the public allows for unprecedented opportunities to watch, feed, touch, and swim with them. Examples of this can be found all over the world, from the tropics to the arctic. Japan provides a particularly paradoxical example, where dolphin swimming tours can be found on one side of the bay while dolphins are killed by fishermen on the other.

In New Zealand, interactions are typically much more benign. Nonetheless, dolphins are being harmed by the tens of thousands of people every year who attempt to swim them. Biologist Dr. Rochelle Constantine has found that over the years, the bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands have been interacting with swimmers less and avoiding them more. Another researcher, Dr. David Lusseau, recently found that an entire population of dolphins is being threatened by the numerous tourist boats that come to see them in Milford Sound, also in New Zealand. He documented that dolphins are being injured and killed by the boats, and up to seven percent of them bear visible scars from boat collisions.

Closer to home in Hawaii, it has become very popular to swim with spinner dolphins. Signs are displayed which describe the federal laws prohibiting close approach to these animals, but few people follow them. The United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act has among the strictest provisions. The laws protecting marine mammals from harassment (intentional or otherwise) from humans carries both civil and criminal penalties for violations: the maximum civil penalty is $10,000 and the maximum criminal penalty is $20,000 and one year in jail. However, these laws are rarely enforced, and new regulations are in the making that may improve protection for dolphins from human harassment.

Although some people view them as invasive impediments to their communication with the dolphins, in reality, these laws attempt to protect the dolphins from excessive invasion from humans. People from around the world come to Hawaii to swim with the dolphins in the more protected and shallow bays. Dolphins have apparently relied upon these bays for millennia for important activities such as resting, nursing, and birthing because they provide relative protection from sharks.

However, biologist Anna Forest has found that the dolphins in one of the most popular bays, Kealakekua, are using the bay for shorter periods of time each day. The dolphins spend about 25% fewer days in the bay now than before swimmers and kayakers began to invade their periods of rest in the early 1980s. Some swimmers say that this change cannot be solely attributed to people. However, when combined with other compelling evidence, a disturbingly blatant global trend in dolphin harassment and even death emerges.

Two years ago, the International Whaling Commission formally addressed the impact of human swimmers on free-ranging dolphins for the first time. For this purpose, I conducted a review of the subject. That review made it clear that dolphins exhibiting the highest degree of contact with humans are at the greatest risk of injury, illness, or death from people. Even the most well-intentioned interactions with dolphins pose serious risks to dolphins.

In part, this is because other species do not exhibit signs of stress and disturbance in the same ways humans do, so they are easily overlooked. In addition, even seemingly benign interactions with dolphins can make them more vulnerable to harm (deliberate or accidental) from other people. For example, two of the “friendly” free-ranging beluga whales we’ve been studying in Canada were hit by boat propellers this summer. One of them lost an eye and the other was killed. Disturbingly, it is not uncommon for “friendly” dolphins to be deliberately injured by people who take advantage of their trust. In the U.S., habituated wild dolphins have been fed such items as golf balls and explosives.

I have no choice but to conclude that a precautionary approach to interacting with dolphins is warranted. The burden of proof must now lie with those who want to make a case for interaction with the dolphins, rather than those who want to protect dolphins from harm.

Clearly (and sadly), for dolphins who engage in interspecies interaction, the human species is not the safest option. Dolphins cannot merely “swim away” time and time again in response to the huge numbers of people who want to be close to them. As dolphin researcher Dr. Kathleen Dudzinski has observed, “The ocean is not our home, but our playground. . . we are guests and should act accordingly.”

Captive Dolphins

A friendly pod of commons join the Expedition in Hervey BayA pod of friendly Common Dolphins join the Expedition in Hervey Bay.
Trish Franklin © 2003 (Click to enlarge)

The public can also interact with captive dolphins through a variety of “swim-with-the-dolphins” and “petting/feeding” programs. Despite concerns about the health and welfare of the animals used in these programs, their popularity is increasing worldwide at an astonishing rate, especially in Asia and the tropics, largely due to tourism-related revenues. As these programs increase in popularity, so does the number of dolphins captured from the wild. The demand for captive dolphins does far more than harm the individual animal captured. It also negatively impacts already-depleted populations by separating mothers from their calves, by removing breeding (or otherwise important) members of the groups, and by harassing other group members during the process of capture.



As far as I know, mine was the first of only two studies of captive swim programs to date. Both studies observed obvious stress-related behaviors in dolphins that were related to potentially long-term negative physiological states. These included submissive and evasive behaviors related to stress and disturbance. And these were in the American facilities, which are often far better than facilities in other parts of the world.

Most people don’t hear about the injuries that people get from swimming with captive dolphins, as they’re generally not reported. These have included broken bones, internal injuries, and serious wounds. Such incidents are probably indicative of great stress in these animals. In addition to the 18 or so documented injuries in the U.S. within a five-year period, I personally witnessed many more injuries than those reported during this time.

The educational benefits of these interactive programs are highly questionable. I must say that, after years of watching them, they look like little more than glorified petting zoos, using exotic dolphins instead of domestic farm animals! I doubt that people will be any more likely to work for dolphin protection after participating in these programs than to become vegetarians after visiting a petting zoo. Not only does the public learn little, if anything, about the real life of dolphins, but they actually go home misinformed, thinking that the tricks they saw are representative of how dolphins behave in the wild. Finally, these captive programs likely perpetuate the problems facing wild dolphins by implying that it is alright to touch and feed dolphins and to treat them like toys or playthings who exist for human amusement.

Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

Dolphin-assisted therapy is highly controversial. Contrary to popular belief, there does not appear to be any peer-reviewed research demonstrating that interaction with dolphins is any more effective than interaction with domestic animals. Even Dr. Betsy Smith, a pioneer whose work with neurologically challenged people led to the development of dolphin-assisted therapy in the 1980s, has decided that she will no longer work with dolphins for ethical reasons.

Dr. Smith says, “In the rush for personal pleasure, people disregarded the damage that could be done to the other species. Therapeutic purposes are often the justification given for this rude invasion. People would never throw their child in with a strange dog, but they’ll throw them in with a strange dolphin. What you are looking at are vulnerable people and vulnerable dolphins.”

Another pioneer in the field of dolphin-assisted therapy, Dr. Horace Dobbs, has poignantly discovered there simply aren’t enough dolphins in the world for everyone.

Peace Between Species

The question remains: how can we be with dolphins responsibly? Clearly, there is a need for people to temper their vigorous and passionate demands to personally experience dolphins with a balanced measure of respect, kindness, and awareness. Humans cannot continue to exploit other species for personal pleasure. Perhaps the “New Age” will inspire us to protect dolphins with the same fervor with which many seek to interact with them.

As world events reflect more and more human violence, the great need for world peace increases. But it is not only humans who inhabit this planet, and therefore world peace does not begin and end with humans. For peace to be global, it must be extended to all the earth’s inhabitants, regardless of race, religion, or species. The need for an end to the direct violence of killing and the indirect violence of environmental degradation is something all species share. Perhaps a more gracious and selfless love for dolphins can be a catalyst for a deeper awareness of the delicate interconnectedness of all life.

This article has been excerpted from “The Kindred Wild” by Toni Frohoff from Between Species: A Celebration of the Dolphin-Human Bond (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco) edited by Toni Frohoff and Brenda Peterson.

Photo by Atmo Kubesa.