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Dolphin Excursions: Good or Bad?

Picture it: a young girl swims along side a dolphin, splashing and playing. She brings him home to swim in her pool or in that giant bathtub she convinced her parents to buy so she could have her very own pet dolphin. She loved that dolphin more than her big sister. She got herself a raft to sleep on so they could hold hands and dream together.

Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Well that was my dream when I was a little girl. Who needed a sister when you could have a dolphin? I wanted to have a real one as a pet. It seemed reasonable enough. All my parents had to do was buy a pool. However, after the past year, I’m beginning to realize I was a very uneducated little girl.

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You see, while I wouldn’t eat tuna as a girl because of the risk to dolphins being caught in the tuna nets, I couldn’t wait to go to SeaWorld to see the dolphins flip and jump around. I didn’t understand that aquariums could be just as dangerous to dolphins as fishing nets.

This past year I was invited to visit a few aquariums with dolphin programs, and even got in the water with dolphins in the ocean to say hello with my oldest son and give a dolphin a pat. I had a few quiet misgivings, but it was part of the trip I would be on, so I didn’t think I could protest too much. I was wrong. I should have declined the trip, or at least that part of the trip.

Now you may be wondering: Is this just a fad because of "The Cove" and "BlackFish"? No, there have been growing concerns over keeping sentient beings in captivity; these issues just don’t always make front-page news. I’ve actually never seen these two films either. My concerns have been homegrown after seeing animals in captivity.

My own boys loved it and I was even impressed with how high the dolphins could jump. But was it right?

One aquarium we visited, which boasts a very large dolphin program, had a very small facility. It was evident that they put all of their money into their dolphin program, but it was also evident that they didn’t need 18 dolphins in house, even if about half had been born there. These creatures performed daily for visitors, making kids laugh with glee and shout for the next flip or ball throw. My own boys loved it and I was even impressed with how high the dolphins could jump. But was it right? I wasn’t so sure.

Did we really need to see these tricks in order to know that we shouldn’t throw trash in the ocean? There really wasn’t much educational information being shared during the show. Families had to search it out at the aquarium. The boys and I got to go behind the scenes and meet the trainers and one of the dolphins. The dolphin seemed content enough to say hello for the fish we threw, but how much stress was this adding to his life?

The other dolphin encounter we got to do was this summer in a floating island in the ocean. Here there were several sections cut up on the floating island that dolphins, sea lions and even a shark and some rays lived in. The sea lion tank was much too small for the number of animals they had in there. They were fighting over food. The dolphins had a bit more room and many had never known anything but the tanks they lived in. Yes, they could see through the fences keeping them in, and look at the larger ocean, but they couldn’t get to it.

I asked the trainer if they ever had a dolphin jump out and he said no. The dolphins didn’t know they could jump out, so they never tried. Here was a massive ocean the dolphins could be playing in, but because they had been trained to accept food from their trainers and only knew the confines of their tank, they never realized they could escape. Could they even survive in the wild if they did? Probably not.

Now, not every dolphin encounter is bad. There are plenty of places, specifically rehabilitation centers that are protecting dolphins and actively educating the public about these creatures and their natural habitat. Many dolphins come to these centers because they have been hurt in the wild. Most will return to the wild once they are healed. If they aren’t able to return to the wild than they will stay at the rehab center or be moved to a larger facility that can take them in. At these educational facilities you may get to pet a dolphin and give them a hug. You probably won’t see them do tricks and flips at the blow of a whistle though.

Dolphin encounters may get your child up close with their favorite animal, but you need to be very careful about which ones you go to.

Another alternative to the hyped-up dolphin encounter is dolphin boat tours. Many beaches offer sunset cruises that promise dolphin sightings because they know that dolphins usually pop out as the sunset. You will see mamas with their babies, teenage dolphins playing together and the old lady of the pack just looking for some quiet.

Here in the US there are marine wildlife laws, especially in Hawaii, that protect sea creatures. Whale tours need to stop within 100 feet of a whale. If the whale chooses to come up next to the boat, that is the whale’s choice. The boat isn’t stalking them and making them interact with loud humans, or at least the responsible ones aren’t.

Dolphin encounters may get your child up close with their favorite animal, but you need to be very careful about which ones you go to. You want your child to have a positive experience, not wonder why the dolphin is going crazy in its tank or the shark has no room to move around in the water. Do your homework and figure out which aquariums and zoos are treating animals with the respect they deserve. Tigers need room to roam. A small barred cage isn’t going to do it.

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Seek out animal rescue centers that have hours they are open to the public. See if you can volunteer for the day so you can see exactly what kind of work is going on at the facility. There are plenty of options, you just have to look for them and not fall back on the easiest, most flashy experience.

Will I continue to participate in dolphin encounters? Probably not. It will all depend on the facility I suppose. There is great work being done to help protect marine animals. I think we will start focusing more on those types of educational encounters and less on the flip-filled shows. That little girl I used to be who used to boycott tuna and collect dolphin stickers would approve.

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