Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XI No. 2 - April 2002

Meeting Dolphins and Whales: Can We Be Considerate?

By William Rossiter

Wouldn't you love to swim with dolphins or whales in the wild? How much would you pay to be placed face-to-face with a whale or dolphin in some safe, comfortable, yet wild and mysterious setting? What about an all-inclusive experience in some exotic location, where you can meet like-minded people, to be helped by dolphins to understand yourself? Here lady, put your small child with this 400 pound, many-toothed predator and be healed. What about joining dolphins as they help you communicate with extraterrestrial life, and share the wisdom of the universe? And to share in the birth of a humpback...

Wait a minute! How much further can this go? Much further. Does anyone do this stuff? Many more every year. What about the dolphins and whales? Do they mind all this? Are we doing harm? No one really knows. How can we? Our senses and skills are dulled in the water, overwhelmed by the experience, and manipulated by self-interest. Whales and dolphins also have proven very hard to provoke, at least enough to penetrate the mindset of enthralled or self-convinced people. Put another way, only a few people have been killed. But, along with broken bones and chewed noses, many have come close, albeit by accident. Have you noticed the threatening tail swipes at photographers in many underwater whale documentaries? The initial upset we may cause may be tolerated, or may be reacted to so subtly that we do not get the cues. Subtle behaviors that would scare away a shark are ignored. The drive to get the picture blocks the view of the irritated body language, which we probably would not accept even if we understood it. Even if we know intuitively that something is wrong, we came a long way and paid a lot for this moment... How many cetaceans are left to wonder if we are sentient at all?

OK, so you're different. But the odds are that well-intentioned or merely ignorant humans are interfering in some way with the normal behavior and routine of dolphins and whales, even causing them harm, yet no one knows how much goes on or how bad it is. But it is getting worse very quickly.

Let's stay clear of the motives and beliefs that would make some people believe that dolphins and whales want to help them, and can. Maybe later we can get into the awesome human ability to convince ourselves of almost anything. But for now, just assume that the potential profit from all this human need has motivated some very smart, greedy and thoroughly convincing people to make this a growth industry.

In that context CSI and many others responded to the 1 April deadline request for comments by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), for regulations on "Preventing Harassment From Human Activities Directed at Marine Mammals in the Wild". This is a unique regulatory problem, because almost no one that might be affected by these regulations believes that they are doing harm, and most believe with fervent vigor that they know the dolphins or whales well enough to know how far to go. CSI argued that whatever rules are made they will not be respected without tactful and objective education. People have to see the need to believe. The rules will need to be sold, convincingly. Even so they will be ignored, and NMFS may react either with an unfair emphasis on the small, private violator yet leave the (legally empowered) commercial operator untouched. NMFS has hit on the easier targets before. Whoever is cited should first be given education or community service; make them face the many problems humans are causing. Any fines should be minor, because judges decide too often to dismiss cases when the penalty is too severe. And then comes the danger of taking someone to court and having the judge throw the case out, or decide against even the most damning evidence. This has happened before too, with the "Lush Life" case, a precedent that still hobbles east coast whale watch enforcement twenty years later. In the end the rule may entice caring people to show more care, and enable a few violators to be shut down. It's about time.

To explore this issue and many others, the Swiss Working Group for the Protection of Marine Mammals (ASMS) will be hosting the Whale Zone 02 Symposium (http://www.whale-zone.ch/), on 6-7 July, near Zürich, Switzerland. The following is an abstract of a paper to be presented there by Toni Frohoff, Ph.D., of the HSUS and TerraMar Research, entitled "From Oceans to Pens: The Real Costs of Dolphin Swim Programs and Dolphin Tourism". Dr. Frohoff's Ph.D. dissertation was related to this subject; she is a leading authority in the field. We thank Dr. Frohoff and ASMS for allowing CSI to share this with you:

"Dolphins and humans have expressed curiosity about one another since ancient times. However, within recent decades the human attraction to dolphins has manifested into a surge of intensive, commercial, and widespread exploitation in which the dolphins sometimes have little, if any control. Dolphins are sought-after as a source of entertainment, recreation, and to a lesser degree, for educational and therapeutic purposes, in captivity and in the wild. Research on and responsible management of these programs have lagged miserably behind their expansion. Because observing and interacting with dolphins generally provides a positive experience for people (with the notable exception of human injuries and fatalities) and because these programs are so financially lucrative, serious consideration of the impact that these interactions have on the dolphins is rarely given. Consequently, individuals as well as populations of dolphins are often subjected to various forms of harassment, stressors, injuries, and even mortalities as a result of their 'sociable' contact with people.

"The public can interact with captive dolphins through a variety of 'swim-with-the-dolphin programs' and 'petting/feeding' programs. Laws governing the capture and maintenance of dolphins in captivity vary widely around the world, from being nonexistent to comprehensive. Of the countries that have implemented regulations protecting captive dolphins, very few have any special provisions for dolphins used in interactive programs. Even in the U.S., where approximately 25 facilities offer some form of interactive program, the dolphins used are not offered additional protection than those who do not interact with the public. The few studies that have been conducted on captive interactive programs all observed stress-related behaviors in dolphins that were related to potentially long-term negative physiological states. For all captive situations, the impacts of capturing dolphins from the wild can negatively impact not only the individuals captured, but the populations from which they were taken as well. Regardless, these programs not only continue, but also are expanding at an astonishing rate internationally, largely due to tourism-related revenues. For example, in the past year in the Caribbean alone, facilities have opened in Anguilla, Antigua, Jamaica, and Tortola and others are in development in the Cayman Islands, Curacao, and Dominica.

"Research and time has shown that even the most well-intentioned interactions with free-ranging dolphins can cause serious impacts. In 2000, the International Whaling Commission formally addressed in-water interactions with free-ranging dolphins for the first time. A independent review was conducted which revealed that dolphins who exhibited the highest degree of 'sociable' contact with humans (and especially those provisioned with food) were generally at the greatest risk of injury, illness, or death from humans. It also found that the impact of swimmers, even in the absence of boats, can be serious to dolphins. This review concluded that a precautionary approach to managing these activities is warranted so that the burden of proof lies with those who want to interact with the animals rather than those who want to protect them."

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