An Uneasy Dip with the Dolphins

  • I am feeling slightly ridiculous as I sit on a dock that juts into an artificial lagoon and stroke a dolphin's nose with my feet. The stroking is a handshake of sorts, a way of introducing me and four other people at the Hyatt Waikoloa in Hawaii to the dolphins with whom we will be swimming. We are the latest of roughly 15,000 customers who have paid $55 for half-hour frolics with six dolphins since the Hyatt program began a year ago. The enterprise, one of four operating in the U.S., is so popular that spots have to be awarded by lottery.

    After more instruction -- "Don't pet them around the blowhole; avoid their eyes" -- and a petting session during which we rub the dolphins' rubbery heads and bellies, we walk to a beach to begin our 20-minute swim. As we enter the water, George DelMonte of the San Francisco area tells me that the chance to swim with dolphins was a principal reason that he and his girlfriend chose to stay at the Hyatt. Encumbered by life jackets that serve mainly to prevent the overeager from pursuing animals to the depths, we flounder about as the young dolphins carve intricate underwater arcs through our midst, occasionally stopping to toss balls with their noses.

    As I watch my fellow human swimmers' expressions, which range from the merely ecstatic to the truly transported, the question arises, How can this be bad? The program is operated by two acknowledged marine-mammal experts whose company, Dolphin Quest, has created a sandy bottomed, virtually natural lagoon for the animals. Still, for some conservationists, "dolphin-fondling" programs (as they are dismissively called) are just one more way in which humans deprive highly intelligent animals of their freedom and put them at risk of disease or mishandling for the entertainment of customers and the enrichment of owners.

    Over the years, marine mammals have become big box office. Around the U.S., amusement parks and aquariums pack spectators into dolphin and killer-whale shows. Companies have organized whale-watching voyages and party-boat trips to feed wild dolphins. One promoter has even proposed an underwater birthing facility where dolphins would serve as "midwives" for human deliveries.

    For the moment, though, nothing angers some conservationists so much as the swim-with-dolphin programs. The critics say the new fad stretches the limits of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which allows the "display" of dolphins under tightly regulated conditions but says nothing about programs in which people interact with the animals. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which monitors the capture and treatment of marine mammals, is holding a series of meetings to determine whether it should revise the way it permits private interests to use dolphins. For the swim programs, the stakes are high: they will have to shut down at the end of the year should NMFS decide they are not in the best interest of the animals.

    Dolphin swim centers can be traced back to the thinking of scientist turned guru John Lilly. In the 1960s Lilly did serious studies of the dolphin brain, but by the 1980s he was arguing that dolphins relayed extraterrestrial guidance toward a higher consciousness. A parade of Hollywood celebrities, including Kris Kristofferson, Phyllis Diller and Olivia Newton-John, swam with Lilly's captive dolphins in Los Angeles. While few people really believed dolphins were Martians in wet suits, the swims caught on, first with New Agers and then with the general public, as private facilities such as the Dolphin Research Center and Dolphins Plus in the Florida Keys began taking in paying customers.

    The Hyatt swim program is by far the most elaborate yet devised. Run by veterinarians Jay Sweeney and Rae Stone, it tries to be educational as well as profitable. Special sessions are held for schoolchildren, who learn all about dolphins. Hawaii's superintendent of education Charles Toguchi gives Dolphin Quest high marks for its programs with island schools. The operators also devote a portion of their receipts to funding research on ways to save dolphins from drowning in tuna nets.

    These efforts, however, have not silenced critics. Says Ben White of the activist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose members take to the seas to disrupt whale and dolphin captures: "Yes, captive dolphins educate, but it's bad education. It tells people it is O.K. to keep these animals and make them do tricks."

    The dolphins in the Hyatt program are juveniles, but adult male dolphins can be rough with humans and even sexually aggressive with women, whom they can easily distinguish from men. William Evans, a former head of NMFS, worries about the risk of injury to people from the 200-kg (about 450-lb.) fast-moving mammals as they become accustomed to people. "Familiarity breeds contempt," says Evans. "I've been slammed and bammed a bit, and I know of a few trainers hurt badly enough to put them in the hospital." If dolphin swim programs avoid such potential hazards by relying on juveniles, they will create a demand to take more young from the wild and, as the captive animals age, a growing population of superannuated adults.

    Evans also worries about diseases being transmitted to dolphins. Two of the Hyatt's dolphins were found dead in the lagoon last spring, raising suspicions that they had been infected by swimmers. Ironically, they turned out to be victims of attempts to make the lagoon more natural: they were poisoned by tainted reef fish that had swum in from the ocean.

    Many are concerned that a proliferation of swim programs will make them hard to regulate. "Every hotel in Hawaii wants to put a dolphin in the pool," asserts Georgia Cranmore of the NMFS. The agency has shut down one dolphin swim program, at the Hawk's Cay Hotel in Florida, because of technical violations.

    Dolphins might have avoided all this attention if evolution had contrived to give them a permanent frown instead of a permanent smile, or if their foreheads, which bulge with echo-location organs, did not make them look so intelligent. But for whatever reason, people think of the animals as special, perhaps even more so than other intelligent creatures such as chimpanzees or elephants. Unfortunately, dolphins can be smothered by misdirected love as well as by tuna nets. Swimming with them may make their human fans feel good, but it would be better if the admiring masses appreciated their grace and intelligence from afar.


    CREDIT: TIME Chart by Joe Lertola