Thinking of swimming with dolphins? Here’s why you should kick it right off your bucket list

There are more than 80 species worldwide of whales and dolphins with many listed as endangered, due to hunting, live capture for use in entertainment, pollution, fishing by-catch and human shipping activities in their habitats[1]. 

Dolphins in particular amongst the cetaceans have long held a fascination for people, with stories and art dating back to the Greek myths recounting tales of dolphins with their affinity for music, saving young heroes such as Arion (find the full story here) and being rewarded by being immortalised as a constellation. 

By Alcestis Group – Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-05-02, CC BY 2.5,

Dolphins are known to be highly intelligent animals with complex social structures and sophisticated patterns of communication.  They live in family groups (pods) with established evidence of social support and cohesion[2] 

Dolphinaria (aquariums for the keeping of dolphins) grew in popularity in the twentieth century as a form of entertainment with such establishments common in UK seaside towns along with many locations in Europe, USA, Japan and Russia.  The Born Free Foundation state that over 2000 individual dolphins are currently resident in dolphinaria worldwide[3].  Conditions are often poor with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) report (2014) noting that ‘no captive cetacean in the EU has the freedom to express normal behaviour’, a cornerstone of the five freedoms in animal welfare[4].  Respiratory disease is a major cause of death in captive dolphins with life expectancies far below that of a wild population[5].

Dolphins in entertainment facilities are often wild-caught with 285 live cetaceans imported into the EU between 1979-2008 regardless of an EU CITES ban on import of live Cetaceans for entertainment purposes[4]. This live-catching disrupts and endangers wild populations, causing stress and a higher mortality rate both to those removed and those left behind[4].  Imported dolphins are often taken from populations around countries where animal welfare legislation is poor or non-existent and wild dolphins are already under threat from hunting, fishing by-catch or pollution.  Indeed, the EU Zoo Inquiry of Dolphinaria by WDC (2014) notes that many imports of cetaceans into the EU are not properly recorded as required under CITES so numbers may be far higher[4].

In the UK, dolphinaria declined in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s largely due to greater understanding of these animals’ welfare needs led by some successful targeting of a marine park in Morecombe by local animal activists.  Negative publicity and picketing of the Morecombe dolphinarium by the Morecombe Dolphin Campaign caused a downturn in visitor numbers by 80-90%   and the gathering of many signatures on a petition for the closure of the park 6].   The Morecombe dolphinarium closed with its remaining dolphin Rocky being rehabilitated and returned to the wild via the Born Free Foundation.  The remaining dolphinaria in the UK closed soon afterwards.

As the traditional entertainment of dolphin shows to music declined in the UK, the shows continued to thrive in other parts of the world with a new element of ‘dolphin encounters’ being available to tourists at an additional cost.  These ‘swimming with dolphins’ and ‘dolphin-assisted-therapy’ sessions are readily available in the EU, USA, South America, Russia and Japan and are particularly promoted by cruise ship tours operating out of the Florida area into the Caribbean where animal welfare laws are very poor.   Animals in these facilities may be kept in very small enclosures and exposed to tourist contact with very little respite[7].

Examples of stereotypical and aversive behaviour and stress levels have been shown to be higher in dolphins kept in smaller, closed systems of treated (chlorinated) water rather than those in larger, open systems with access to sea water and marine wildlife[8]

UK tourist operators such as Thomas Cook provide an idealised view of these encounters, encouraging a swimming-with-dolphins ‘bucket list, once in a lifetime’ ideal as shown at their link here for a Mexican dolphin park[9].  However, animal welfare organisations such as WDC advise against the practice due to significant welfare problems for the dolphins and the risks to people entering the water with them[10]

Tourist dolphin encounters are big business with a single dolphin able to generate $1million per year[11], what price in animal welfare are these intelligent and sociable mammals paying to line the pockets of investors?  Don’t be tempted by these welfare-poor animal encounters; support instead ways to see cetaceans in their wild environment, supporting local communities and preserving wild populations in good health and left to live in peace  

Playful dolphins jumping over breaking waves. Hawaii Pacific Ocean wildlife scenery. Marine animals in natural habitat.[12]



[1] WDC (2018) All About Whales and Dolphins. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[2] WDC (2018) Welcome to the World of Whales and Dolphins. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[3] Born Free (2018) Captive Whales and Dolphins – Global. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[4] Whale and Dolphin Conservation (2014) EU Zoo Inquiry: Dolphinaria.  Wiltshire: WDC.
[5] Brando, S., Broom, D.M., Acasuso-Rivero, C. and Clark, F. (2017) Optimal marine mammal welfare under human care: Current efforts and future directions.  Behavioural Processes, Article in Press.  [Available online at] .
[6] Hughes, P. (2001) Animals, values and tourism – structural shifts in UK dolphin tourism provision.  Tourism Management, 22: 321-329.
[7] PETA (2018) ‘Swim-with-Dolphins’ Programs.  Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[8] Ugaz, C., Valdez, R.A., Romano, M.C. and Galindo, F. (2013) Behavior and salivary cortisol of captive dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) kept in open and closed facilities.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8: 285-290.
[9] Thomas Cook (2018) Dolphinaris Cancun. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[10] WDC (2018) Swimming with Dolphins. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[11] SunSentinel (2018) Captive mammals can net big profits for exhibitors. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[12] iTrekkers (2018) Dolphins Image Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].


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