Swimming with captive dolphins is dangerous
Facilities like the Hotel Los Delfines that allow direct human contact with marine mammals, are exposing their customers to possible infection and injury.
The reverse is also true—The Hotel Los Delfines is exposing Wayra and Yaku to possible human diseases or injury as the result of inappropriate behavior by the public.
Diseases contracted from marine mammals however are difficult to treat and diagnose, as they may be overlooked or even ignored by physicians who are not aware of the risks—or range—of potential infectious diseases.
In a report to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), researchers from the University of California highlighted the potential health risks to which humans are exposed through contact with marine mammals: In an internationally distributed survey of people who come into contact with marine mammals (primarily those who work with these animals), 23 percent of respondents reported contracting a skin rash or similar ailment.
Respiratory diseases were also reported in nearly a fifth of marine mammal workers, including diseases such as tuberculosis. Clearly, exposure to marine mammals can involve a health risk to people working with the animals, but it can also threaten the health of the public.
Attacks on humans
Clearly the public has an image of the dolphin as friendly and gentle. The Hotel Los Delfines and CILDE do strengthen this wrong perception by publishing in their website and educational material dozens of phrases like this one:
“It is about teaching them (the children) to take advantage of their intelligence and creativity for doing good to their neighbors and to discover the wonders of nature along with Yaku and Wayra who, through their language, teach us about the love and tenderness that we must hold in our hearts, the kindness that our planet shelters, and how to transmit the love and concern towards our environment, our home, THE EARTH, to others around us.”
But even if dolphins are intelligent and playful animals – they are still large and very efficient predators, that could easily kill a man. Moreover, in the wild, their behavior to other dolphins and other marine mammals is often aggressive—and sometimes violent. For example, bottlenose dolphins, the most commonly kept cetacean species in captivity, have been regularly reported attacking and killing members of other cetacean species, and even attacking and killing conspecifics’ calves.
Orcas, another commonly kept cetacean and the biggest dolphin species, are well known for their predatory behavior and have been recorded killing a wide variety of marine mammal species.
Cetaceans routinely kill mammals in the wild. Humans are also mammals, equal in size or typically smaller than many of the mammals killed by bottlenose dolphins or orcas.
It is extremely foolish to think that somehow the rules do not apply to humans. We are not immune to aggression or injury by cetaceans.
In Hawaii, a short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) grabbed hold of a human swimmer, pulling her down 10–12 meters underwater before letting her go. Although the swimmer was lucky to not have been drowned, she suffered a bite wound that required nine stitches.
As the number of facilities increases that offer encounters with dolphins in the water, particularly in regions where there are few or no safety regulations, safeguards, or reporting requirements, like in Peru, so the likelihood of more human injuries and deaths also increases.
It would never be acceptable for zoos to allow visitors to interact freely in an enclosed space with chimpanzees, gorillas, lions, or elephants. It is folly to regard interactions with marine mammals as safer than those with other large wildlife species.
Several factors additionally increase the probability of aggressive behavior by dolphins:
1.) Inappropriate behavior:
Inappropriate behavior, such as touching sensitive areas of the dolphin’s body, like the eyes or blowhole, increase the likelihood of aggression by the dolphins. To date there has only been one record, in Brazil, of a bottlenose dolphin killing a person. The animal who caused the incident was a solitary male, named Tiao by locals, with a history of approaching human swimmers as well as of inflicting injuries: 29 swimmers had reported injuries, mostly as a result of the humans “harassing” the dolphin by grabbing his fins or trying to jump on his back. Eventually, on 8 December 1994, the dolphin rammed a man (who was reported to have been attempting to put objects into the dolphin’s blowhole), rupturing his stomach and causing his death.
Captivity causes unnatural living conditions for marine mammals. Animals from different groups or even ocans are stuck together in small pools were aggression can not be avoided by creating physical distance between the animals, conflicts between the animals do become permanent and cant be resolved causing a latent threat of explosive aggression. Captive dolphins are time bombs.
Dr. Horrace Dobbs, medical research scientist, author, Founder of the Oxford Underwater Research Group and later Founder of International Dolphin Watch, and since 1986 one of the British Pioneers of dolphin therapies with dolphins in the wild (not in captivity) resumes his concerns:
“Natural man-dolphin encounters (not tour-organized) almost always involve isolated dolphins, turned away from their groups or orphans. Those dolphins seek in men a substitute of the social relationship represented in nature by the herd.” However, “not every solitary dolphin has a friendly character, and some of them became famous because they broke legs and arms of swimmers who approached them inadequately. Notwithstanding, many people received great benefits from meetings with dolphins, and those animals were able to unlock pathologies which were considered serious or incurable. For this reason, in many dolphinariums programs of therapy-in-pool are organized: here, though, dolphins are forced and prisoners, their territory is very narrow, and abnormal behavior (even aggressive) is not rare.”
The aggression and violence of which orcas are capable were clearly witnessed at Sea World San Diego in August 1989, when an Icelandic female (Kandu V) rammed a northeastern Pacific female (Corky II) during a show. Although trainers tried to keep the show going, blood began to spurt from a severed artery near Kandu’s jaw. Sea World staff then quickly ushered away the watching crowd. Forty-five minutes after the blow, Kandu V died. It should be noted that two orcas from different oceans would never have been in such proximity naturally, nor is there any record of an orca being killed in a similarly violent encounter in the wild.
Captive orcas are the marine mammals most associated with human injuries and deaths. In 1991, a group of orcas killed trainer Keltie Byrne at Sealand of Victoria, Canada. In front of a shocked audience, the orcas held Byrne underwater until she drowned. Eight years later, one of those same orcas, Tillikum, was discovered one morning with the dead body of a man, named Daniel Dukes, draped on his back at Sea World Orlando. Dukes had also drowned and suffered a host of minor injuries incurred both pre- and postmortem, suggesting that Tillikum had once again held a person underwater until he died. Dukes had apparently either snuck into the facility at night or stayed in the park after closing in an attempt to swim with the whale, calling into question the park’s security procedures.
The potential for violence in orcas was also seen when a young orca called Ky attacked his trainer, Steve Aibel, at Sea World San Antonio in July 2004. During a show, the animal hit the trainer, pushed him underwater, and positioned himself between the trainer and the exit ramp of the pool. The trainer was rescued from the whale by another staff member only after several minutes of being unable to bring the animal under his control.
But aren’t these only unfortunate accidents?
The personnel at Swim-with-dolphin-programs claim that almost all injurious human-dolphin interactions are accidents. However experts express skepticism about the accidental nature of these injuries. Marine mammals are clearly capable of inflicting injuries and even killing humans.
A study from the University of California found that 52 percent of the surveyed marine mammal workers in zoos and dolphinaria reported some form of traumatic injury caused by a marine mammal (251 cases altogether). Those in regular contact with marine mammals or involved with cleaning and repairing enclosures were more likely to be injured.
The United States National Marine Fisheries Service NMFS received between 1989 to 1994 more than a dozen reports of injuries to people who participated in programs that allowed customers to swim with dolphins in captivity. The injuries reported ranged from lacerations to broken bones and shock. One man suffered a cracked sternum when butted by a dolphin, and a woman received a broken arm when similarly rammed.
In another incident, on 7 October 2004, a 49-year-old man was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, having sustained injuries from a captive female dolphin at the Miami Seaquarium. The injuries were severe enough that surgery was required.
The fact is that at any time during a swim session, especially one that is not controlled, dolphins may inflict minor to serious injuries on swimmers for various reasons, some of which are neither obvious nor predictable. Even in controlled swim sessions, the risk is always present and is potentially lethal.
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Page author: Stefan Austermühle
Read more about dolphin captivity and the Hotel los Delfines at:
- What you can do to free Wayra and Yaku
- Life-capture kills
- Dolphins suffer during transport
- Life in captivity is hell
- Captive dolphins kill each other
- Captivity makes dolphins sick
- Captivity kills
- No chance for dolphin calves
- Dolphins must be free
- The Hotel Los Delfines
- CILDE – a smoke screen NGO
- Pre-birth stimulation- a dangerous game
- Dolphin therapy
- Does captivity educate our children to care?
Whale watching as an alternative to dolphin killing
Mundo Azuls whale and dolphin research