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Encounters with Dolphins: A Call for Peace Between Species
by Toni Frohoff, Ph.D.

The New Times
January 2003

The ancient bond between dolphins and humans bridges two worlds - the worlds of sea and land. The strength of this interspecies relationship is so powerful that dolphins and humans have even risked their lives to help each other in real life as well as myth.

However, humans have exploited this bond by killing, hurting, harassing, and capturing dolphins. Now we have the opportunity to make choices that will strengthen our relationship with this other species, rather than further fragmenting it.

To do so, we must go beyond respect for that which is human by becoming appreciative of that which is wild, not because it serves us, but simply because it is. Perhaps, through the indisputable biological interconnectedness of all life on this planet and the need for mutual interspecies respect, the earth is the ultimate elemental example of the spiritual adage "we are one".

Many people feel a tremendous degree of affection toward dolphins and whales. In the past few decades alone, it has become far more popular to watch dolphins and whales than to kill them in many parts of the world. Although this is certainly cause to celebrate, I do so with hesitation, because many dolphin species are still facing serious wildlife conservation challenges today.

The growing popularity of encountering dolphins over the past few decades has brought with it a surge of intensive, commercial, and widespread exploitation of dolphins internationally. Dolphins in captivity and in the wild are widely sought as a source of entertainment and recreation, and, to a lesser degree, for educational and therapeutic purposes.

Unfortunately, dolphins around the world are being captured, harmed, and even killed just so people can be close to them. Research, management, and public awareness have lagged sorely behind the expansion of these activities - and at the dolphins' expense.

In the past few decades, as people have become more passionate about close encounters with dolphins, we have overlooked the most fundamental question: how do these encounters affect the dolphins?

Because dolphins generally provide such positive experiences for people, few seriously consider how we affect them. And when people do ponder this, their vision is often blurred by the glamorous media images of dolphins they've grown up with, as well as their own enthusiasm.

As a result, dolphin-lovers may harm the same animals with whom they seek to interact. It's important to look beyond the permanently fixed dolphin smile and consider whether dolphins really want to interact with us as much as we think they do, and what the long-term impact of such interactions might be on dolphins' lives, environments, and societies.

Dolphins in the Wild

Even after almost twenty years of studying dolphin-human interactions, seeing them
in the wild still remains an incomparably exquisite experience. Dolphin and whale watching is certainly not a new phenomenon, and, when done in moderation, can occur responsibly. Here in Washington, we are fortunate in that we can even view orcas from land (especially on San Juan Island).

But recently, it's become more common to see boaters and swimmers descending upon wild dolphins in droves around the world. The formalization and commercialization of programs making dolphins more accessible to the public allows for unprecedented opportunities to watch, feed, touch, and swim with them. Examples of this can be found all over the world, from the tropics to the arctic.

Japan provides a particularly paradoxical example, where dolphin swimming tours can be found on one side of the bay while dolphins are killed by fishermen on the other.

In New Zealand, interactions are typically much more benign. Nonetheless, dolphins are being harmed by the tens of thousands of people every year who attempt to swim them. Biologist Dr. Rochelle Constantine has found that over the years, the bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands have been interacting with swimmers less and avoiding them more.

Another researcher, Dr. David Lusseau, recently found that an entire population of dolphins is being threatened by the numerous tourist boats that come to see them in Milford Sound, also in New Zealand. He documented that dolphins are being injured and killed by the boats, and up to seven percent of them bear visible scars from boat collisions.

Closer to home in Hawaii, it has become very popular to swim with spinner dolphins. Signs are displayed which describe the federal laws prohibiting close approach to these animals, but few people follow them.

The United States' Marine Mammal Protection Act has among the strictest provisions. The laws protecting marine mammals from harassment (intentional or otherwise) from humans carry both civil and criminal penalties for violations: the maximum civil penalty is $10,000 and the maximum criminal penalty is $20,000 and one year in jail.

However, these laws are rarely enforced, and new regulations are in the making that
may improve protection for dolphins from human harassment.

Although some people view them as invasive impediments to their communication with the dolphins, in reality, these laws attempt to protect the dolphins from excessive invasion from humans. People from around the world come to Hawaii to swim with the dolphins in the more protected and shallow bays. Dolphins have apparently relied upon these bays for millennia for important activities such as resting, nursing, and birthing because they provide relative protection from sharks.

However, biologist Anna Forest has found that the dolphins in one of the most popular bays, Kealakekua, are using the bay for shorter periods of time each day. The dolphins spend about 25% fewer days in the bay now than before swimmers and kayakers began to invade their periods of rest in the early 1980s. Some swimmers say that this change cannot be solely attributed to people. However, when combined with other compelling evidence, a disturbingly blatant global trend in dolphin harassment and even death emerges.

Two years ago, the International Whaling Commission formally addressed the impact of human swimmers on free-ranging dolphins for the first time. For this purpose, I conducted a review of the subject. That review made it clear that dolphins exhibiting the highest degree of contact with humans are at the greatest risk of injury, illness, or death from people. Even the most well-intentioned interactions with dolphins pose serious risks to dolphins.