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Does an innocent swim promote animal cruelty?Exploring the facets of captive dolphin swim programs
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승인 2011.05.24  14:55:42
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▲ Photo by Sarah Delroy

Near the top of many adventurists’ checklist is swimming with dolphins (SWTD). It has a shiny allure. The experience appeals to a wide demographic. Families use it as a bonding experience. Others see it as something on par with bus tours; it is what you do on holiday when near a warm coastline. Some people swim with dolphins because they hope for a mystical experience.

SWTD projects around the world cater specifically to some or all of these desires. Jeju Island, being a tourism hotspot, has two dolphin-experience facilities. In this article, captive SWTD projects will be explored for their benefits and drawbacks.

Fascination with dolphins is not something new. The ancient Greeks thought that dolphins riding in a ship’s wake were a sign of good fortune. In Hindu mythology the Ganges river dolphin was associated with Ganga, the deity of the river. Their presence is peppered through naval folk history.

In more modern times, during the 1960’s, the bottlenose dolphin won many hearts through the television show Flipper. In the series, a young boy and a dolphin have a relationship similar to that of Timmy and Lassie. People across the US wanted a similar experience with Flipper. Businessmen gave them their wish. Dolphinaria, aquariums specifically for dolphin shows and dolphin experiences, popped up all over the world. Many were forced to close due to public protest and non- adherence to animal welfare laws.

Currently there is no shortage of captive SWTD programs. Generally the experience begins with an introduction to a single dolphin in the shallow end of the tank. The trainer introduces the anatomy of the dolphin and makes sure that the client and dolphin are comfortable. Some show tricks are incorporated. The dolphin ‘sings’ when the trainer mimes a conductor’s hand movements. It also poses for ‘the kiss’ picture that the client can take home and put on the fridge. When it is time to go into the big tank the dolphin waves goodbye. Fish are given for a reward after each of these segments.

▲ Photo by Sarah Delroy

Clearly, this is not wild behavior. It is more like a one on one dolphin show.

An article entitled “Swimming with Captive Dolphins: Current Debates and Post-Experience Dissonance” by Susanna Curtin and Keith Wilkes, explores the divide between the reasons people go and what they feel afterwards.

Many of the people Curtin and Wilkes interviewed had hoped for a wild-like experience with the dolphins. Afterwards they felt that the dolphins were just doing tricks and often felt guilty about the small size of the pool.

They sum up the article on a positive note:

“Clearly the experience is not what people expect. However, there is little doubt that humans do derive some considerable benefit and enjoyment from SWD experiences. The question is whether the contact with an animal-other enhances understanding of the animal kingdom or whether such interaction programmes merely reinforce the socially constructed images from popular media.”

Erich Hoyt of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society goes deeper into the ethics of the SWTD experience in his book "The Performing Orca: Why the Show Must Stop".

He explains that there is some cross over in ethical perspective, but that the argument is essentially polarized. While both sides agree that any captive animal should be treated humanely, owners and curators of aquariums and marine parks say that any adverse effects are outweighed by the educational component that the shows provide. Critics of these shows say that the adverse effects on whales and dolphins in captivity have been proven and that inhumane treatment is not an ethical cost for education.

In 1985, Victoria, Australia passed a law prohibiting further capture of cetaceans (whales and dolphins). A report by the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare entitled "Dolphin and Whales in Captivity" stated that "[critics of aquariums and marine parks] believe that arguments advanced by oceanaria, for keeping cetacean captive, such as enrichment, awareness and improved knowledge, are inconsistent with, and subordinate to, their commercial motives."

The argument keeps circling back to these three issues: humane treatment of animals, the need for education and profit trumping all.

In 2009 a documentary entitled “The Cove” was released to great critical acclaim. It won the Academy Award for best documentary as well as a host of other top prizes. It’s content focused on Taiji, Japan and the annual dolphin culling that happens there. The film also explored the connection between the killing grounds at Taiji and the distribution of dolphins from this place to aquariums worldwide.

“The Cove” presents several interviews with Ric O’Barry. He was the man who had captured and trained the dolphins for the television show Flipper in the 1960’s. After seeing his dolphins transferred to aquariums and what it did to them psychologically he has devoted his life to liberating dolphins from captivity.

The scenes of the dolphin killings at Taiji are bloody and horrifying. The fishermen trap the dolphins in the cove with a large net system. They are then driven towards the beach, stabbed with a spear and left to bleed out.

In the film O’Barry claims that the majority of aquarium dolphins are purchased by trainers at the annual culling and distributed to aquariums around the world. Other sources claim that in fact most of these captured dolphins are sold mainly to aquariums in Asia and have never been allowed into the United Sates.

A dolphin experience program on Jeju Island does verify that it obtained its dolphins from Taiji.

In addition to shady sourcing, there is also research stating that aquarium life puts incredible stress on the dolphins. The Humane Society of the United States claims that some dolphins may die from the stress of capture alone. The capture of a family member also traumatizes the pod left in the wild.

In a dissertation by Kirsten L Stewart entitled “Human Dolphin Encounter Spaces” she states that “[m]any captive dolphins display physiological and behavioral indicators of stress such as elevated adrenocortical hormones, stereotyped behavior, self-destruction, self mutilation, and excessive aggressiveness towards humans and other dolphins.”

▲ Is there a cost to this photo beyond the W100,000 entrance fee? Photo courtesy the author.

So why do people keep taking part in SWTD programs? There seems to be a promise of something wonderful guaranteed by the experience. People regularly shell out $100-$150 for the chance to swim with these majestic creatures, yet are often as elated as they are dissatisfied when they leave.

The debate is fierce. Does swimming with captive dolphins captured at Taiji directly relate to the deaths of all the other dolphins in that cove? Could these captured dolphins be considered safe now that they are in captivity?

It is a contentious issue and one not easily solved.

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