Swimming with dolphins is the dream of many, young or old. It is an experience that I had the chance to have just a few days ago, in a place known for its breathtaking landscapes and its great respect for dolphins, whales, orcas and other marine mammals: New Zealand.
However, if the conditions in this country are optimal to meet and swim with dolphins, it is not the case everywhere… and some parts of the world are known to resort to abusive practices, which disturb and even literally assault our delphinid friends. Without being an expert on the subject (swimming with dolphins), I thought it would be a good idea to talk about it on this blog.
To Swim With Dolphins or to Leave Them Alone?
To tell the truth, as president of an association dedicated to the protection and defense of dolphins (who are very strongly opposed to their captivity, for reasons I have already had the opportunity to discuss here), I hesitated for a long time before making the decision to use the services of a commercial company, even if it was a New Zealand company and subject to very strict regulations on the subject.
Why did I hesitate? Simply because I think that dolphins have the right to be left alone. Even if they are curious and come by themselves to meet these strange two-legged animals that we are, our presence in their element is like an intrusion in their living space. If they are hunting, or resting, what right do we have to disturb them?
The argument that is usually put forward against this reflection is the following: if we come to swim with the dolphins but by doing so we disturb them, they only have to move away. They are, after all, much better swimmers than we are (and the word is weak!). A few strokes of the tail fin, and they are out of reach of the tourists who are chirping to attract their attention.
Under the conditions of respect of the serious companies or associations that offer this kind of encounters, the argument is quite valid. Nevertheless, tourists want their money’s worth and, even if they are disturbed and the groups of dolphins present do not seem to be in the mood to interact, everyone gets back on the boat and the captain goes hunting for another group (or the same one) to give everyone the opportunity to see them up close.
Abuse of Swimming With Dolphins in Some Countries
In some countries, this commercial imperative, combined with a free enterprise that generates an ever increasing competition (and therefore presence), leads to harmful and reprehensible practices. In Egypt, for example, in the Red Sea, it is not uncommon for hundreds of tourists, spread over dozens of boats, to harass small groups of dolphins. As Yvon Godefroid explains in this interview, swimming with dolphins has become a real plague for them.
And this situation is not unique… In the Bahamas, Mauritius or in other places, operators organize real battues and swimming with dolphins takes place in deplorable conditions. If you have had the opportunity to experience this kind of practices, do not hesitate to indicate it in the comments below this article.
Be Well Informed to be Sure of the Conditions
If your dream is to swim with dolphins (free, of course!), the first thing to do is to make sure you know about the conditions of this kind of encounters, and to choose accordingly. Indeed, if you want to swim with dolphins, it is most certainly because you love these animals. If you love them, you probably don’t want to hurt them. Therefore, most of the time, it will probably be best to refrain from doing so.
If you are in a country where the conditions for an ethical encounter are not respected, don’t feed that situation. Just as you can’t go to a dolphinarium once you know what dolphin captivity really means. As Ric O’Barry says, if there were no more spectators for dolphin shows, there would be no more dolphinariums!
Dolphin Encounter Guidelines
If you sail, you may have already had the opportunity to meet dolphins accompanying your boat. Perhaps you have even swum with them. In any case, if you find yourself in the presence of dolphins one day and want to jump into the water with them, here are a few guidelines to follow:
1. Don’t (Literally) Jump Into the Water
Throwing yourself noisily into the water will probably make the dolphins want to go elsewhere! So be sure to enter the water calmly, no matter how excited you are. You don’t want to give our delphinid friends the impression that you’re a rude person. Respect their living space.
2. Don’t Touch the Dolphins
This is probably one of the most important rules. If you manage to intrigue a dolphin or a group of dolphins, they will come to observe you, do some laps around you. Don’t take advantage of this to try to pet them. It is the dolphins that will initiate, perhaps, a contact. In any case, do not take the lead. Especially since, under certain circumstances, this can lead to unwanted reactions from them. These are animals known to be friendly to humans, but they are wild animals first and foremost, remember that.
3. Adopt the “Dolphin” Swimming Style
This goes right along with the previous instruction: keep your arms at your sides. In other words, try to swim like a dolphin. When a dolphin comes to watch you, try to turn at the same time as it, in a kind of aquatic ballet. They are much better at this than we are, it goes without saying! So be careful not to make yourself too dizzy 😉
4. Make Eye Contact
In the same vein, try to make eye contact with the dolphins that come your way. Those who have had the opportunity to exchange glances with a dolphin, a whale or a sperm whale will tell you: there is a lot that passes (some even speak of telepathy). However, it is a very strong impression, which may give you the certainty, if you did not already have it, that these creatures are indeed of extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity.
5. To Attract the Attention of Dolphins
As the dolphin swim organizers explain, it’s kind of up to you to entertain the dolphins… Since these marine mammals live in a world of sounds, the easiest way is to make “interesting” sounds yourself when you’re in the water. Sing. Make fun noises, and you’ll have a better chance of getting their attention. A friend of mine who went dolphin watching had a technique that obviously worked, as you can see in this video:
(NB: The other participants on the boat were obviously pleasantly entertained by this array of sounds!)
If you are in a country where conditions for a respectful encounter are not assured, please do not go swimming with dolphins. You will disturb them and they will not want to meet you anyway. Therefore, make sure you know what you are doing before you do anything.
If you encounter dolphins, whether under ethical circumstances or on your own, follow the few guidelines listed above (I may have forgotten some, so feel free to add to them below). Don’t forget that you are the one who comes to introduce yourself in their daily life. Show them that you care about them.
For pity’s sake, and I remind it even if it will seem obvious to the regulars of this blog, do not go swimming with captive dolphins. Stay away from dolphinariums. The unfortunate dolphins that inhabit them are not happy. They’re under stress, they’re in a form of slavery, their conditions are totally inadequate, and the best proof that they’re not meant to be there is that they die prematurely. Of all captive animals, cetaceans are the only ones that have a much shorter life expectancy in confinement than in the wild.
The Alternative of Whale-Watching
When I went to swim with the dolphins a few days ago, the second part of the morning went as follows: while the crew shared an authentic educational speech (hats off to them), dozens of dolphins accompanied the boat, for a good 20 minutes. This show alone is worth all the dolphinariums in the world and was as magical as swimming with them.
Here is a short video I made at that moment:
The impact of whale-watching (when it is not, once again, the object of abusive practices due to unrestrained competition) is much less than swimming with dolphins. Many associations, French and foreign, organize this kind of outings, coupling them with real educational speeches. If you are not absolutely sure and certain of the conditions proposed to you, whale-watching is an excellent alternative to going swimming with dolphins.
Edit of April 19, 2013
Here is a report from France 2 (8pm news on April 15, 2013) about swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura.