Dolphin Discovery at the Moon Palace Resort

Dolphin Discovery at the Moon Palace Resort


How to Grade Dolphinarium Facilities


I saw them before I even stepped off the stage after my Opening Keynote session at TBEX Cancun with Dr. Martha Honey. More than a half-dozen employees of Dolphin Discovery– the dolphinarium that offered “Swimming With Dolphins” tours at the Moon Palace Resort– stood in a semicircle, looking uncomfortable, waiting for me to wrap up my conversation with another blogger so they could chat with me about what was being called “Dolphingate.”


For those who missed the drama, in July it was announced that the tours being offered to travel bloggers attending the TBEX Conference included a “Swim With Dolphins” tour at a Cancun dolphinarium. Blogger Matthew Kepnes called for a boycott of TBEX, with hundreds of other bloggers and concerned travelers signing his petition. TBEX honcho Rick Calvert was unyielding and unapologetic, saying that bloggers should behave like journalists and make their own decisions. We eventually entered the fray (which we were unaware of because we’d been traveling, and had not planned to attend the Cancun conference) and convinced Cancun Tourism to cancel the tours.


In the midst of the controversy, we were invited by TBEX to appear alongside Dr. Honey– founder of the Center for Responsible Travel– in a keynote session to discuss ecotourism and responsible travel issues, including dolphinariums and other animal attractions. Manuel Garduno (Manager of Marine Mammal Operations), Michelle Madueno (Manager of Education & Conservation), and several other members of the Dolphin Discovery staff were there, with “Debunking the Myths About Dolphins in Human Care” brochures in hand, to invite us to tour their facility and learn why not all dolphinariums are created equal.


How could we refuse?


Dolphin Discovery Dolphinarium in Los Cabos

Dolphin Discovery’s Los Cabos Location



For diehard dolphin lovers, the debate over Dolphinariums seems ridiculous. Dolphins are not an endangered species, and therefore do not need “saving” via captive breeding.  Studies have shown that cetaceans do not do as well in captivity as they do in the wild, often showing repetitive behavior or becoming aggressive to other animals and people. Captive cetacean facilities perpetuate the capture and brutal slaughter of wild dolphins at The Cove in Taiji, Japan. It seems obvious that dolphins, who typically swim hundreds of miles per day in the wild, should be free.


But not all conservationists accept what many outspoken animal activists consider to be the facts. Dr. Grey Stafford, Director of Conservation at Arizona’s World Wildlife Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park, believes that interaction with animals is essential in inspiring humans to protect and save them, describing captive cetaceans as “ambassadors for their species.” Given the extraordinary popularity of “Swim With Dolphins” programs at the world’s 315 dolphinariums, one can safely assume that a significant number of travelers agree.


Dolphins Jumping in Pine Island Sound off Sanibel Island, Florida

Dolphins Jumping in Pine Island Sound off Sanibel Island, Florida


Mark Simmons, author of Killing Keiko: The True Story of Free Willy’s Return to the Wildplayed a key role in the attempt to save Keiko the killer whale (a.k.a. Willy), who ultimately died in the wild after illness resulting from an unsuccessful attempt to integrate with wild whales.


He cautions against making conservation decisions based on “a tidal wave of public emotion– the will to do good– and not on critical thinking or expertise.” He insists that the situation for the world’s marine life is increasingly dire, that dolphins are suffering from environmental stress and immunological compromise resulting from the degradation of their environment, and that dolphinariums and aquariums are the primary source of funding for crucial conservation efforts, scientific studies and public education about these issues.


A pod of dolphins swimming near our boat in Moorea, Tahiti

A pod of dolphins swimming near our boat in Moorea, Tahiti


In our opinion, cetaceans should be free, and swimming with them in the wild is an exhilarating, unforgettable experience. But, of the 3600 dolphins currently in captivity worldwide (141 of which are owned by Dolphin Discovery’s 14 locations in Mexico and the Caribbean),  some estimates suggest that nearly half were born in captivity, and are therefore incapable of surviving in the wild.


So if, for the moment, we consider dolphinariums a necessary evil, the question becomes, How can you tell a responsibly managed dolphinarium from an irresponsibly managed one? We visited Dolphin Discovery in search of answers.


Dolphin Discovery's Costa Maya Location

Dolphin Discovery’s Costa Maya Location



During our interview with Garduno, Madueno and trainer/veterinarian Marian Rend, we learned about the 12 categories on which Dolphinariums are inspected every five years in order to receive certification from the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums.


The AMMPA bills itself as “an international association dedicated to the highest standards of care for marine mammals and to their conservation in the wild through public education, scientific study, and wildlife presentations.” However, given the fact that Sea World is one its accredited members and Blackfish has clearly revealed ethical issues behind that organization, perhaps we should take AMMPA endorsement with several grains of salt.


Of the world’s 315 dolphinariums, only 62 are AMMPA certified, 11 of which are owned by Dolphin Discovery.


Dolphins leaping in Cancun, Mexico

Dolphins leaping in Cancun, Mexico


Here is a basic explanation of the 12 factors on which each captive cetacean facility is graded:


1) Acquisition & Disposition- Where do the dolphins come from? The Mexican government made it illegal to import/export wild marine animals in 2004, and the AMMPA is outspoken against the capture of wild dolphins in Taiji and the Solomon Islands. Dolphin Discovery Cancun got their first 6 animals from the National Aquarium in Cuba.


2) Training- Irresponsibly managed dolphinariums use food deprivation and isolation of individual animals as part of their training procedures. Dolphin Discovery emphasizes no stress for their animals, using positive reinforcement techniques and isolating animals only when they’re pregnant or under quarantine.


3) Education- One of the conservation community’s strongest arguments for captive cetacean facilities (and zoos in general). Dolphin Discovery’s education program emphasizes ocean conservation, the impact pollution has on marine life, and the importance of recycling.


Dolphin Discovery at Six Flags, Mexico City

Dolphin Discovery at Six Flags, Mexico City


4) Animal Husbandry- This involves the ways in which the animals are managed and cared for. Dolphin Discovery Cancun’s 5 marine mammal specialists give their 10 dolphins monthly health checkups, as well as testing the water quality once a month.


5) In-Water Interactive Programs- Dolphinariums are graded on how their employees interact with the dolphins during guest encounters. We declined Dolphin Discovery’s offer to get in the water with the dolphins, so we can’t speak to the quality of their program.


6)  Propagation- This concerns the facility’s captive breeding programs. Through Dolphin Discovery’s “Miracle Program,” more than 70 calves have been born successfully over the past 18 years, with captive breeding accounting for 60% of their total dolphin population.


Dolphins in the Gulf of Chiriquí, Panama

Dolphins Swimming By the Bow of Our Boat, Panama


7) Quarantine- An examination of the dolphinarium’s quarantine facilities, which are used in rescue and rehabilitation. Dolphin Discovery Cancun has assisted the Mexican government in saving dolphins and manatees over the years.


8) Record Keeping- This one should be self explanatory.


9) Scientific Research- Cetacean research has led to a variety of breakthroughs on everything from Dolphin Language to Dolphin Intelligence. Dolphin Discovery assists various U.S. universities in their studies of dolphins, manatees and other marine mammals.


Dolphin Discovery in Cozumel

Dolphin Discovery in Cozumel


10) Space Requirements- Mexican law dictates that dolphinariums must have a minimum of 13 sq meters (42 sq feet) of space per dolphin. Dolphin Discovery’s Cancun staff boasted of having 39 square meters (128 sq feet) of space for each of its 10 dolphins, which are mostly kept in an ocean pen 45 meters long, 25 meters wide, and 3.5-4 meters deep. Keeping in mind that these animals swim 100 miles a day in the wild, and that the Moon Palace Resort property offers a vast stretch of ocean unused by its guests, why not expand to provide the dolphins more room? The response (from Director Claudia Sosa) was that, “In this specific case, the environmental impact study does not allow us to do a bigger place,” despite the fact that their older facilities in Cancun and Cozumel are around five times as big.


11) Transportation- This examines how the animals are moved in the case of emergency, such as when a hurricane hit the Cancun coast a few years back.


12) Water/Environmental Quality-  Although their Cancun facility keeps dolphins in the sea, other Dolphin Discovery locations have them in chlorinated pools. The chlorine levels are monitored hourly, and staff are required to ensure that guests shower to remove sunscreen, bacteria, and any food residue before getting in the water.


Swimming With Wild Dolphins in Panama

My First-Ever Wild Dolphin Encounter



After more than two hours of talking to the Dolphin Discovery staff, we were eventually led out to the dolphin pens just as the sun set over the horizon. While Manuel and Claudia continued to speak passionately about their staff’s love of and respect for the dolphins, I watched the animals intently as they swam in slow circles, turning their heads to look at us as they went by.


I felt torn by my professional obligations to remain neutral, my emotional response to seeing one of my favorite species up close, and my passion for animal rights advocacy. On a personal level, I knew that these animals deserved to experience the liberation of roaming free. Yet at the same time I understood that this pod– the majority of which had lived their entire lives in captivity– was woefully unequipped to live outside the cage to which they were currently confined.


Do dolphins deserve their freedom more than cats, dogs, cows, horses or other animals domesticated by humans over the centuries do? I don’t know. Do captive cetacean facilities, with their incongruous balance of profit-driven showmanship and conservation-focused education, do more harm than good? I can’t say.


What I do know is that we, as humans, have done a lot of terrible things to this planet and the species that inhabit it, particularly over the last century. I know that if we don’t find some way to do better, many of our most beloved species will disappear within our lifetime. And I know that, if I had my choice, the dolphins and whales born in the wild would stay there forever, and those born in captivity would have a LOT more room to roam.  –Bret Love; photos of wild dolphins by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, all other photos provided by Dolphin Discovery


To learn more about the problems with Dolphinariums and other captive cetacean facilities, visit Born Free USA,  Empty The Tanks Worldwide and the Care For The Wild International website.

For a counterpoint from the scientific research perspective, visit the website of Speak Dolphin founder Jack Kassewitz, author of “Speak Dolphin: Deciphering the Dolphin Code.”



If you enjoyed our post on How to Grade Dolphinarium Facilities, you might also like: 

ECO NEWS: Cancun Cancels TBEX Dolphin Tours

INTERVIEW: Blackfish Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Takes on Sea World

INTERVIEW: Jean-Michel Cousteau On Marine Conservation

INTERVIEW: Artist/Marine Conservationist Guy Harvey

ANTARCTICA: The Whales of Antarctica

ECO NEWS: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Fights For Marine Life

32 Responses to GO GREEN TIP #105: How to Grade Dolphinarium Facilities

  • Jeremy says:

    A second logical piece to come out of TBEX. Hooray! Shame the protestors got it all shut down because we could have had more like this other than our own articles. Knowledge is the first step to making any real change, and protesting with “facts” from documentaries is not knowledge.

    Good article!

    • I don’t know, Jeremy, I think the people who were interested in doing stories like this– like you and I– found very easy ways to do so. Those who didn’t most likely wouldn’t have written stories like this even if they had done the dolphin tours.

  • Love this Bret. Written in a fair way, as it should be from a journalist. It’s easy to say how we’d like things to be in life. But having those lofty dreams without dealing with them in the current reality is not possible. Sure, wouldn’t it be nice if wild animals stayed in the wild and could roam freely. I like your conclusion that wild animals should stay wild and those in captivity should have larger spaces to roam. I’ll be honest that I wasn’t aware of these issues until I visited a Dolphin Discovery facility on a press trip in Mexico this year. I learned a lot there. I’ve also hesitated to write about it because I don’t feel educated enough on the issues of both sides to do so. I’ve learned much more with articles like this. Too bad bloggers were prevented from taking a journalist’s approach to this situation in Cancun like you’ve done, but I guess that’s the problem with a profession that doesn’t have many professional journalists.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted..We’re Getting Married by Elvis in Las VegasMy Profile

    • Lance, the notion that bloggers were prevented from taking a journalist’s approach is inaccurate. The dolphinarium was right there on the Moon Palace Resort property, and the hotel was very welcoming of any TBEX attendees who expressed interest in doing dolphin tours. And there was a TBEX-affiliated tour of the dolphinarium that originally offered the “Swim With Dolphin” tour… they just weren’t able to swim with dolphins on it. But the opportunity to go and do what we (and Jeremy Jones) did was available to anyone who expressed interest.

  • I love how this article actually makes me feel even more conflicted about animal captivity. There just is no black and white. I do think it is a valid point that some sort of interaction with animals does inspire people to want to protect them and raise awareness (Elephant Nature Park for instance). It’s hard to find the right balance. By the way, I know for a fact my Maltese would not make it for 24 hours in the wild. :)
    Katherine Belarmino | Travel the World recently posted..#DoBaja: Win a Trip to Baja and Follow My Ecotourism AdventureMy Profile

  • Melanie Murrish says:

    Lots to ponder on Brett and Mary, especially since my in-laws live in Portugal where Zoomarine is visible everywhere, and I have two young daughters who naturally love, love, love dolphins, as do I (lets face it, I don’t know anyone who dislikes them). We once had a dolphin in our marina in Sunderland (northeast coast of England)-now that was a sight to behold. Thanks for a thoughtful, well-balanced post.

    • We understand. I did two swimming with dolphins tours– once in captivity back in 2006 (long before I saw The Cove and learned about the problems with Dolphinariums), and then in the open water in 2009. There’s no question the open water swim was much more meaningful for me. Once you experience that, you never want to see them in captivity again.

  • Kerry says:

    I wrote an article about the new Ripley’s Aquarium in downtown Toronto that opened up last year. I love whales, dolphins, and all sea creatures and am conflicted, but I don’t really know a whole lot about it. Must explore the issue further. I did see all the hype and the love they have on the Dingle Peninsula, in Ireland for Fungie the dolphin. It is a popular tourism draw and the world is evolving, but how will we deal with the issue in the years to come? Interesting article here. I hope to explore it more on my new travel website.

    • I think we all need to explore these types of issues further. Only by understanding all sides of what’s going on can we collectively figure out the best way make things better.

  • I am always torn between my love of animals and my concern for how they are kept when I encounter them in captivity. It is a fine line between educational conservation experience and freak show performance, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. I appreciate that you took the time not only to listen to the other side of “Dolphingate” by spending time with the staff at Dolphin Discovery, but that you shared your experience with us.

    I have 3 children who love sea life and would jump at the chance to swim with dolphins. I have struggled with how to explain the subject matter of the “The Cove” or “Blackfish” but now I think I have the answer. Together you learn as much as you can about both sides; how they live in the wild and how they are kept in captivity. Then each person has to make up their own minds what is acceptable.
    Amelia Lynch recently posted..TBEX Cancun: A Newbie’s PerspectiveMy Profile

    • Well, our goal is always to remain as objective as possible when doing our journalistic duty, but to also include our own personal thoughts and opinions. Hopefully, by showing both sides, hopefully readers will respect our ultimate conclusion that dolphinariums aren’t humane, and that we can do better.

  • I can totally relate to the feelings you must have had touring the dolphinarium. Trying to stay neutral was a challenge I’m sure. I felt the same way touring Monsanto recently. Kudos to you for staying open minded and relaying the information in a coherent way.
    A Cook Not Mad (Nat) recently posted..Tiki TauMy Profile

  • Thankyou for presenting a really well thought out piece with many different points of view – it’s rare to read a balanced article when it comes to animal conservation these days.

    I’m very conflicted on this topic, and agree with all of the points you put forward above. I especially love Mark Simmon’s quote that it will do no good to rely on “a tidal wave of public emotion– the will to do good– and not on critical thinking or expertise”.

    I think too many people blindly advocate for a specific cause without thinking through their approach.
    Meg @ Mapping Megan recently posted..Stuck in a Bat Cave in the Panamanian JungleMy Profile

    • I agree, Meg. But the complexities of an issue like this take time and energy to research thoroughly, so it’s easier to just have a knee-jerk reaction and choose one side or the other. The fact is, both sides present salient arguments with some merit.

  • I wanted to read this to see if I could be swayed one way or the other. Not having given this issue much though pre TBEX drama I was on the fence. And after reading this, will remain there. Shades of grey and all that jazz mean, for those facilities who have high standards maybe it’s okay….
    SJ @ Chasing the Donkey recently posted..Croatian Culture: UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural HeritageMy Profile

    • Yeah, the devil’s in the details. The shades of grey between the two extremes make it a much more complex issue than some extremists on either side of the issue would like to acknowledge.

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  • Mette says:

    Important discussion that goes for not only dolphinariums but most kinds of zoological gardens. Thanks for sharing.
    Mette recently posted..Statues in Piazza della Signoria in FlorenceMy Profile

  • Finally an excellent, well-written and researched article to come out of this Dolphingate business. I’ve been following the débacle all summer and I’ve been amazed to read so much written by people that just jumped on the emotional bandwagon and had no idea of what they were doing. Thanks for showing a rational viewpoint on the question.
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  • I have never been a fan of dolphins in captivity for entertainment. I don’t visit any dolphinariums or anything similar. Wonderfully researched article. It was an interesting read, and an interesting side story about TBEX.
    Rhonda Albom recently posted..Dangerous Duties: Dangers of the Sea at Auckland Voyager Maritime MuseumMy Profile

  • Inge says:

    My daughter and I have had conversations concerning this very thing numerous times. Now that she lives in southern Florida, she has become more aware of the ocean environment and how this is detrimental to the animal.

    The majority of people think this is a fun and cool thing to do whilst on vacation. However, I can’t help but wonder how much more thrilling it would be to swim with dolphins in their natural habitat.

    Thank you for such an informative article. I can’t wait to share this with my daughter!
    Inge recently posted..Naturally Treating Sumac Part 2My Profile

  • Marsha Starr says:

    I think its important to always approach these and other animal advocacy issues with an open, critically-thinking mind. It’s good that you observed Dolphin Discovery for yourself. I’ve visited many facilities – those accredited by the Alliance and a few that were not. I have always found the accredited facilities to do a much better case in the treatment of their animals and the educational factors presented.

    The one thing that I would ask is that you apply the same critical thinking to Blackfish and The Cove. There are numerous factual inaccuracies in Blackfish that can be verified through documentation, as well as many, many more misrepresentations that were included, it appears, to ramp up the drama and support the filmmakers’ anti-SeaWorld/anti-captivity position.

    Thank you for your blog post.

  • Thank you Bret for promoting an intelligent conversation around dolphins in human care! How encouraging to read the many reasonable comments posted here. It is very refreshing compared to the internet rants by people who are quite misinformed and go on the attack the moment you try to shed some light on the subject.

    Here is some information that will help paint the global picture. According to a 2006 [1] study done for the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the estimated global bycatch from industrialized fishing kills 653,365 marine mammals each year, about half (307,753) of which are dolphins and the other half (345,611) are sea lions, seals and walruses. The study also points out that the real number of cetaceans killed as bycatch each year could very well be even higher since fishing vessels are reluctant to report these figures.

    So to put things into perspective — the very highest estimate that I have found of 3,600 cetaceans LIVING in facilities worldwide is 1% when compared to all the cetaceans that are KILLED EACH YEAR, predominantly in gillnets, so that humans can eat cheaper seafood.

    Industrialized fishing is an enormous problem for the oceans and the cetaceans that live in them. Not only do these factory fishing methods kill dolphins and whales as bycatch but we are also disrupting the entire ecosystem in which they live. Clearly, this is unstainable. It seems to me that people who really want to help dolphins must focus on this much larger problem. Perhaps this fishing problem is so overwhelming that people would rather put the blame on something smaller and easier to see — like dolphinariums. However, that is just diverting valuable attention from the real crisis.

    Please know that I am not suggesting that we put on blinders in regards to dolphinariums and the well-being of cetaceans who live among us. I believe that every cetacean in human care deserves to live in the very best conditions that humanity has to offer. Bret, I hope that you will continue to engage in conversations with those of us who are striving for that. As you pointed out, there are large numbers of dolphins born in human care now, and I believe they are counting on us to provide meaningful lives and healthy habitats for them. Considering the state of our oceans, how much wiser it is to encourage all dolphinariums to live up to the very highest standards and to advance the human-cetacean partnership in every possible way. I feel that the Dolphin Discovery staff deserves a lot of credit for showing up to talk to you. And you deserve credit for being willing to listen.

    Donna Kassewitz,

    (see page 4 on this pdf of the report for the figures stated above)

  • Ronny says:

    As much as these facilities in Mexico are responsible, I still think that the motive of the vast majority of these places is more towards entertainment than research and conservation. As such, I feel no motivation to go to places like that…

  • Dian Emery says:

    Brilliant article guys, congratulations! I’ve always hated seeing these dolphinariums when I travel and had assumed all of them bad. This article is great resource for those wishing to “do the right thing” in regards to dolphin-human interactions.
    Dian Emery recently posted..Hummingbird Cake RecipeMy Profile

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  • Thanks for a fairly balanced review of your visit to Dolphin Discovery. As an academic whose focus is dolphin-human relations, and having extensive experience in both wild and captive environments, I would like to offer a few comments.

    I commend you for recognising the complexities of the issue. While I don’t assume you will entirely change your personal feelings, additional information may be of some help in feeling better about seeing dolphins under human care. It is my hope that meaningful conversations like this can go towards improving the lives of cetaceans everywhere. There is a great deal of misinformation about this issue on the internet.

    First, to use ‘The Cove’ and ‘Blackfish’ as sources of fact is not particularly useful. They are both full of exaggeration and misrepresentation, made to further agendas rather than to document actualities. ‘The Cove’, for instance, repeatedly states that “23,000 dolphins per year” are slaughtered in the cove at Taiji. This has never been the case, and exaggerates the numbers by a factor of ten. Watch closely and you will see that, even in ‘The Cove’, it is clear that the fishermen will not accept money, equal to what they earn from either killing or selling dolphins, to stop. It is not a matter of earning money for them. They insist that the dolphins are “pests” and must be killed and their views are supported by the Japanese government. Taiji’s dolphin killers are not responsible for the existence of dolphinariums, and it is incorrect to believe that “dolphins from Taiji have been shipped to dolphinariums all over the world” as is claimed in ‘The Cove’. The overwhelming majority of the dolphins bought from the killers have been sent to Asian dolphin facilities, mostly in Japan and China.

    ‘Blackfish’ has been shown to be an unbalanced misrepresentation as well, unfairly attacking the most effective public institution working for ocean health, marine mammal rescue, research, and public education. Sea World gives millions each year to independent researchers working to advance understanding of oceans and marine mammals ( While the care of Orca is certainly problematic, and improvements are always under way for their care, films like ‘Blackfish’, by misrepresenting the situation, do little to improve it. In North America 70% of the Orcas in aquariums were born in human care. Given the significant problems with Keiko’s attempted rehabilitation, these facility-born Orcas seem unlikely to fare much better in the wild. For the foreseeable future, how they are cared for depends on excellent management, commitment, and funding.

    This is a legacy of our human past, when we wanted to collect species that fascinate us. Today we know that we must tread carefully, that the world is limited in its resources. It is up to us to do the best possible for dolphins (Orca are dolphins), caring for those who have nowhere else to go. I find this to be an exciting opportunity for humanity, to step up to this responsibility, extending compassion to others in ever-more effective ways.

    I have visited many dolphinariums as part of my ongoing research. I have yet to find one where the trainers, veterinarians, and managers don’t seek improvements in the facility. While larger enclosures are often seen as ways to improve them, local legal restrictions based on environmental standards often prevent this. The problems are not with the facilities themselves, but the laws governing them, in many cases.

    As for the number of dolphin facilities worldwide, in 2005 a study was published that identified 199. I doubt that another 116 have been built in the past 9 years (see Couquiaud, L. (2005) A survey of the environments of cetaceans in human care. Aquatic Mammals, 31, 3 279-385).

    There is a common misconception about the “breeding” of dolphins. Nearly 80% of dolphins under human care in the developed world were born in built environments, and these were, in many cases, born as a result of the natural sexual reproduction that ensues when female and male dolphins are together. Having mixed sex groups is important for dolphin health and socialization, and the result is new dolphins. Is this breeding? The common name for this, thrown around by animal protectionists is ‘breeding for greed’. But is it? Perhaps it can be better understood as an indication of the high quality of care provided for the dolphins, their low levels of stress, and the natural consequences of their social lives. The ‘breeding’ that is done by dolphin facilities (by no means are all dolphin births under human care the result of this), using artificial insemination in cooperation with other facilities, is for several reasons, most importantly to avoid taking more dolphins from the oceans while ensuring that a healthy genetic mix is maintained. What it does, however we understand it, is end the old idea of taking dolphins from the oceans.

    It is emotionally satisfying to repeat the statistics of how far some dolphins swim each day as justification for wanting to see them out from under human care. However, the statistics actually vary widely for different species, and the bottlenose dolphins most often found in swim programs are usually the inshore variety who swim much shorter distances. Some populations only leave the shallows to forage at night, travelling only a few miles each day. They do this of necessity, to find food at night and shelter in the day. Under human care, they need not travel far to find these.

    Bottlenose dolphins are extremely adaptable, and have become well adjusted to living under human care. Having said this, I think we all agree that having larger living spaces for dolphins is better than small ones, but they need not be vast in size to support healthy dolphins. Economics and government regulations are determining factors in how large any dolphinarium can be. When well-intentioned activists insist that the public stop attending dolphin programs to cause financial hardship for the dolphinariums, they are inadvertently pushing aquariums to spend LESS money on improvements to dolphin habitats. Since these dolphins must continue to live in human care, I hope that dolphinariums will be encouraged and supported to expand the size and quality of these dolphin spaces.

    I agree that a way of measuring the quality of dolphinariums is important and that some, in less developed regions, have quite a way to go to reach the high standards required for decent care. I suggest that each of us take a moment to consider how important it has been for us to have come into contact with, or to have seen up close, the wild animals we all care about. A zoo is a place where most of us have found ourselves astonished, delighted, and newly committed to care for the other animals in our world. Dolphins are unique in their adaptability to human presence, being quite naturally inclined to investigate us, to attempt to play and communicate with us. To insist that the only way humans should encounter dolphins is to watch them from afar, when there is a population of dolphins with nowhere else to go, is to deny ourselves an exceptional opportunity to learn compassion for others.

    I agree that interaction with wild dolphins is a very special experience, one that is not matched by encounters with dolphin in human care. However, it is worth noting the increasing number of scientific studies showing how wild dolphin encounters endanger them (see, for instance, Guerra, M., Dawson, S. M., Brough, T. E. & Rayment, W. J. (2014) Effects of boats on the surface and acoustic behaviour of an endangered population of bottlenose dolphins. Endangered Species Research, 24, 221-236; Filby, N. E., Stockin, K. A. & Scarpaci, C. (2014) Long-term responses of Burrunan dolphins (Tursiops australis) to swim-with dolphin tourism in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, Australia: A population at risk. Global Ecology and Conservation, 2, 62-71; Stensland, E. & Berggren, P. (2007) Behavioural changes in female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in response to boat-based tourism. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 332, 225-234.; Samuels, A. & Bejder, L. (2004) Chronic interaction between humans and free-ranging bottlenose dolphins near Panama City Beach, Florida, USA. Cetacean Resource Management, 6, 1 69-77). I am all for wild encounters, and yet we must recognize that even this has an impact on their lives.

    Since we have dolphins who cannot be ‘returned to the ocean’, it seems a good choice to see and experience them in safe and controlled environments where they are well cared for. It is worth noting that research has shown very low stress response to human swimmers among dolphins in swim programs (see Trone, M., Kuczaj, S. & Solangi, M. (2005) Does participation in Dolphin–Human Interaction Programs affect bottlenose dolphin behaviour? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 23, 363-374; and Kyngdon, D. J., Minot, E. O. & Stafford, K. J. (2003) Behavioural Responses of captive common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) to a ‘Swim-with-Dolphin’ programme. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 81, 163-170.) Some people think the only answer is to ignore them entirely, but this not the answer in my opinion, because we really do have so much to learn from them, and they clearly are willing to engage with us. We must find balance in every aspect of our relationship to cetaceans – in facilities and in the wild.

    Research has shown that dolphins who have been under human care for a year or more, dolphins rescued and without necessary capacities to survive in the wild, and dolphins born under human care do not survive when placed into the ocean. They die quickly, killed by sharks or starvation (see, for instance Waples, K. A. & Stagoll, C. S. (1997) Ethical issues in the release of animals from captivity. BioScience, 47, 2 115-121.; Brill. R. L & Friedl, W. A. (1993) Reintroduction to the wild as an option for managing navy marine mammals. Technical Reports. San Diego, United States Navy (NRaD).

    My suggestion is that, by supporting dolphinariums, we enable them to improve their care for them, we acknowledge the importance of having stimulating encounters with another animal with unique abilities, and we deepen our care for the Earth.

    Good educational programs are important as part of any travel experience. We are past the era of The Grand Tour, when we only cared to see ‘the Exotic Other’. Now travellers want something more. By taking tours to dolphinariums and including excellent presentations about what is seen and experienced in them, tour operators can help build more and more good stewardship and care for the oceans.

    Thanks for reading and for caring about cetaceans!

    Dr. C Scott Taylor, PhD, BSocSc (Hons)
    Exec. Dir. Cetacean Studies Institute

    Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any dolphin facilities or swim programs, nor do I draw any financial benefit from them. All citations in this comment can be accessed via a good University library. If you desire to have a comprehensive education program for your clients, contact me. You may see more of my thoughts on issues regarding human-cetacean relations at

  • Alison says:

    Very interesting read! Animals in captivity is something I struggle to feel okay with unless they’ve been rescued and are in a sanctuary for their protection. After seeing beluga whales in the wild in Canada, it broke my heart to think of them swimming in circles in a tank ‘performing’ to the public. I have the same feelings when I see big cats in zoos. I know there are grey areas when it comes to ‘the bigger picture’ and raising money for conservation and research efforts etc. but it still just feels so unbelievably wrong.
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