Dolphins have long been a source of fascination for us as a species. We humans love to see these graceful creatures cut through the water along with our ships, and do tricks in sea parks and aquariums. We relish every encounter, whether it is actually a natural movement the animal makes, or one it has been trained to do. However, not all dolphin encounters are good for you to experience, or good for the animal. Some can cause much more harm than good.
Dolphins are sentient beings. They feel pain, joy, and sorrow. Just watch the movies Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 and you will see how the heroine Winter reacts to her new tail and the loss of her best friend. They are also extremely intelligent (if The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy hasn’t convinced you, I’m not sure what will).
A few years back I had the opportunity to do three different dolphin experiences with my boys. One was wonderful; the other two left a horrible taste in my mouth. The joyful one was on a sunset cruise. The captain knew where the dolphins came out to play off the coast of Florida, so we parked the boat to see if any would appear. A few did, just coming within a hair’s breadth to check out what was going on. We didn’t feed them, we didn’t touch them, and we didn’t ask them to do tricks.
On that same trip, my boys and I did a behind the scenes dolphin encounter at the local aquarium. This aquarium was small. It had 22 dolphins in residence. That should have been my first clue that this would not be something I wanted my children to experience. No aquarium, no matter the size, should have 22 dolphins in captivity. Some were injured animals that had been rescued, but more were part of a breeding program at the aquarium. This breeding program was not sending the dolphins to other aquariums or releasing them into the wild (dolphins born in captivity can’t be released). We got to touch the dolphins (they feel like wet hot dogs in case you are wondering), feed them fish and give a few hand signals to make our new dolphin friend do tricks. My oldest loved it and couldn’t get enough. My youngest was freaked out by the giant creature with teeth before him so he took a nap in my lap. I walked away with a gross feeling that covered my skin. Something was not right about that experience. No matter how happy the dolphins looked and how thrilled the trainers were to be there, the experience just didn’t set with me.
The last time I did a dolphin encounter sealed the deal. We would never do a dolphin encounter where the animals were in captivity after that. My oldest and I had flown down to the Caribbean to check out a hotel. One of the excursions was to swim with the dolphins. Little did I know what this meant. A small boat took us out to a complex in the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast. Floating platforms created a walkway around large sections of water. Around the entire complex there was a chain linked fence that went all the way to the sea floor to keep the animals in. Yes, we were swimming with dolphins in the ocean, but they were literally held captive by the same fencing I have in my yard that denotes property lines in our neighborhood. This was not OK. When I asked the trainer if the dolphins could just jump over the walkway, he said no. Why would they when they are being fed so well here? That’s not a good answer. Every time the dolphins did a jump in the water, I imagined them looking wistfully at the huge expanse of water they would never get to swim in. Even worse was a sea lion tank on one side, where the sea lions were jumping on top of each other to be fed in a far too small tank.
I swam with the dolphins that day and let me son pet the animals, but I knew that was the last time I would ever do a dolphin encounter. We would go on catamaran cruises and if we happened to find dolphins along the way that was OK, but never again would I pet dolphins who were held captive just to entertain us humans. It isn’t fair to them, and it isn’t something I want my children to learn is the norm and OK as they grow up. I want them to respect the creatures that inhabit our earth, not look at them as their personal play things like too many of us humans seem to do, although hopefully that will change one day soon as more aquariums cancel their dolphin and killer whale programs.
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