My Swim with Wild Dolphins
Our catamaran was headed back to the main island. No longer expecting adventure, passengers were now passively waiting, snacking on tropical fruits, casually scrolling through their photos of the day, and even falling asleep. The aquamarine ocean view no longer captivated them, like it had just hours earlier before we snorkeled. Drunk on ocean water, papaya, and equatorial sun, we were ready to head back to land. Then, the crew shouted something that woke us all back up.
“Dolphins ahead!” I sprinted to the bow of the boat to catch a glimpse. Their fins barely broke the surface, making the majestic creatures appear as tiny blips in the ocean. Our boat slowly closed in on the dolphins, but they didn’t swim away. Now we could see them circling below.
“Anyone want to swim?” a crew member asked.
He didn’t have to finish his sentence before I threw my binoculars into a chair and unwrapped my towel. I quickly secured my goggles and jumped in before the dolphins would swim away. I submerged underwater, but saw nothing. I came back up for air. The crew member asked if I could see anything, and I responded no.
I tried again. After a few seconds, I saw the dolphins. I was in water about 15 m deep, approximately the same depth of the dolphin tank at the Niagara Aquarium I would visit as a child. As a young girl, I would stand up against the glass and watch the dolphins circle around the tank right in front of me. Now I felt like I was in the dolphin tank. The dolphins circled around me the same way I had watched them circle in their tank many years ago. It was one of the most magical experiences of my life.
Why I Regret It
Over a decade later, I thought this was an ethical way to swim with wild dolphins. A way where the dolphins were not forced to be there by nets built into the beach and kiss tourists on the cheek, like they are in “swim with the dolphins” adventures in Florida, Hawaii, and other vacation destinations.
My dolphins could swim away if they wanted to and were by no means captive. But I realized I, a wildlife biologist with a Ph.D., could be wrong.
I posted about this experience on Facebook, only to have my marine biologist friend of mine point out that jumping in the water with marine mammals is never a good idea. It could stress them out, and if there are mother dolphins with calves, separate them.
A few months later, a summary of a recent study popped up on my weekly Science email newsletter. Swimming with wild spinner dolphins in the Middle East was possibly contributing to their declines. This species of dolphin hunts at night and therefore sleeps during the day. Tourists that try to swim with them are disrupting their sleep. Imagine if someone jumped in your bed in the middle of the night!
Researchers found that in an area with higher levels of tourism in Egypt, the dolphins are doing more aerial displays. This is a sign they are NOT happy, which ironically leads to better tourist experiences because people love watching dolphins leap into the air. A study in Hawaii showed these dolphins have been in decline since the 90s, but we don’t know if tourism is the cause. The good news is that once tourists found out that they were disturbing the dolphins, some expressed remorse. While regulations are needed, it’s important to spread these messages because if people don’t pay for it, it will stop. I would be happy to sacrifice the magical dolphin encounter I wrote about above to prevent damage to wildlife populations, especially for a species in decline.
Should You Never Swim with Wild Dolphins?
To complicate the story even more, there can be instances where it is okay to swim with some species of wild dolphins. I submitted this piece for my “Science Writing for the Public” class, and she happened to review it. She told me that some species are very curious and will even come up to tourists in the water.
What’s a girl to do? How do you then know when it’s okay and not okay to swim with wild dolphins? Here’s my advice: If you are going to an attraction that specifically advertises swimming with wild dolphins, be wary and do your research. What species will you have encounters with? Google those species and see if there are negative impacts that ecotourism has on them, as in the case with the spinner dolphin. If you are not sure, contact or tweet me and I will find out from a marine biologist.
If you are on an adventure not specific to dolphins, such as snorkeling or scuba diving, I would adhere to my marine biologist friend’s recommendation and not jump in the water if you see dolphins. As she mentioned, this could stress them out, separate mothers from calves, and disrupt natural behaviors. This advice aligns well with the rules of the Marine Mammal Protection Act set by the United, which prohibits the “taking” of marine mammals. Take is defined not only as hunting and killing, but the harassment of marine mammals. Harassment includes pursuing, tormenting, and/or chasing and is basically any act that can disrupt the animals’ natural behaviors. I would add jumping into the water to this list.
The only way to swim with wild dolphins ethically, is to let them be in charge. If you are in the water for a snorkeling or scuba diving adventure and a dolphin comes to you, consider yourself lucky and enjoy this magical experience!
Unsure if your wildlife tourism adventure is ethical? Read my 5 Guidelines for Ethical Wildlife Tourism to help you evaluate.
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.
I had no idea. So much we do as humans hurts nature around the world. It really makes me think about how even the most minute things we do, things we easily overlook have been hurting nature since mankind got a foothold in the world. I was most happy to see ships leaving California’s Bay Area for the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch cleanup’! It is a daunting task ahead of them, but I really believe we need to get going on this. If not they say that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish themselves. So much action is needed to look out after our world. I wish more people would get on board with it.
I had an amazing experience. A wild dolphin actually wanted to play and swim with me. I will never forget it. He let me touch him swim with him with my arms around him. I had goggles and palms and he kept the speed that I could swim with, he actually stayed on the surface or near with me. I completely lost track of time and space. We went through Medusa fields, I saw that he nudged other people! and things underwater, he briefly played with slow moving divers but he came back to me to continue to swim with me. He let me caress him. It lasted about 45 minutes before he swam off.
Where were you when this happened?
Zanzibar island off the coast of Tanzania.
I have had several encounters with wild dolphins and know exactly what you are talking about. Jumping in the water while they sleep and chasing them is disrespectful and cause stress. However, one thing is for sure, if they choose to not interact with you, there’s absolutely no chance that you can approach them, swimming or with a motor boat because the minute you are innthe water, they are far gone. If they tolerate your presence or even wish to interact with you, they will stay close and swim with you. Bottom line, if they are not sleeping, they are in control of the amount of interaction they wish to have. You can swim with dolphins as long as you respect them. They know it anyway…
I just had an incredible experience! I was just swimming about 200m from shore and suddenly I heard a semi-loud swoosh behind me, and when I turned around there they were…a pack of about 7 or 8 dolphins. They were not circling or anything like that…just swimming in a straight line. One of the dolphins swam so close to me that I was actually able to touch it as it was passing by. They didn’t stop, so without making a big fuzz, or any splashy moves, I started swimming as if I was part of the pack. The experience lasted no more that 10s since I could not keep up with their speed, but man was it magical. A few people saw the whole thing and some even took pictures. When I swam back to shore someone told me that she saw the dolphins headed in my direction and appeared to swim really slow, but it wasn’t until she saw me trying to keep up with them that she realized that even when they’re slow, they still swim pretty fast. You’re right, the trick is to let them be in charge and just follow their lead. I do consider my self *very* lucky.
I’m still going dolphin swimming tomorrow because I don’t care
Yesterday 8-20-19, at about 7:45 pm, I went in the water at Wabasso beach park, in Wabasso Fl, between Sebastian, and Vero Beach, after about 5 hours metal detecting on the beach. I was the last person in the water, but there were still people on the beach. I was in the water between waist, and shoulder deep. I noticed 2 dolphin basically swimming circles around me, and going back and forth in front of me. Never going more than 30 feet away. Then I realized why. A baby dolphin 1.5-2′ long had become curious with me. It actually came and got between my arm and body, almost in my arm pit, with its snout behind me. After what seemed like 5 minutes(but was probably only a minute, I reached over and stroked it. It immediately swam away, then came right back to the same spot. I probably shouldn’t have, but I stroked it again, and it “rolled on its side” so i stroked its underside, instead of it’s back. This did last at least 5 minutes. It then did swim away, but stayed right near me, often brushing up against me for the next 15 minutes. The baby then swam back to the adults, and the 3 stayed about 50 yards away from me for another 10 minutes. I am guessing the parents weren’t too keen on it, and I wasn’t sure if they would attack. But the baby wouldn’t leave me alone. I’m guessing these were bottle nose, and being fed by someone.
Wow! That’s interesting. I would say the dolphins are maybe fed in that area, but since the adults seemed fearful, it sounds just like just the baby was curious. Thanks for sharing. And yes, in the future, it’s best not to touch them. You never know what can happen and the mother may have attacked.
It’s interesting that different dolphin species will approach you, and some will remain distant. My sister loves dolphins and she wants to take a tour to encounter the experience. I’ll advise her to research the species so she can be aware of what she will expect.
I got to play with a pod of around 15 dolphins. The entire pod surrounded me. They would swim off, go for a surf on the waves and then come back. It was pretty scary at times. I would a flip in the water and they would mimic me. It was amazing. When I took breaks and went back on land they would come super close to the beach as of asking me to come back in. We did this for two hours until I started to feel pretty hypothermic. Best moment of my life. This was I’m NZ on a isolated coast
What a cool experience! It sounds like they are fed though.
What would you say if you were on the shore and there was a pod of dolphins not too far out? Would it be wrong to swim out to them?
I don’t think that would be problematic because the dolphins would be able to sense you coming from a distance. When you jump into the water, they are surprised. My guess is that they will swim away from you before you get too close, unless they are fed by humans, then they might come closer. Some are curious though so you might get lucky.
I swim off honeymoon island in fl daily and the dolphins know me and often come to greet me and will swim right with me. To commune with such power and intelligence is humbling and awe inspiring. Evil people in the Faroe islands and Japan slaughter them in the thousands each year, often leaving the meat to rot. They killed over 1,400 in one day last year in the Faroe Islands. Even babies. Boycott these evil nations and all they stand for. Every citizen of these countries should feel nothing but shame. How dare they rob the WORLD of these incredible beings. Boycott seaworld too. No dolphin should ever be harmed or imprisoned and I will defend dolphins by any means.