Don't Swim with Captive Dolphins

Richard O'Barry, marine mammal specialist at the Earth Island Institute, explains why you need to rethink swimming with captive dolphins on your next holiday

You might have heard of The Cove, a white-knuckle documentary about the annual killing of dolphins in Japan. After all, it won this year's Oscar for Best Documentary.

Besides being a marine mammal specialist at the Earth Island Institute, Richard O'Barry is also the passionate protagonist of the documentary. He trained the five dolphins used in the 1960s television show Flipper.

spoke with O'Barry about dolphins. He explained why swimming with dolphins on your next vacation is something you should seriously rethink:

“Many people going on vacation and enjoying new sights and sounds, are particularly attracted to aquariums featuring captive dolphins performing tricks, and to swim-with-dolphins programs, where you can get in the water and touch a dolphin.

But I hope you will reconsider before you buy a ticket.

In order to know what’s wrong with captivity, you really have to see dolphins in the wild. They swim for about 40 miles each day. They have large extended families.

The dolphin captivity industry—and, make no mistake, it is a very lucrative industry—imprisons dolphins and places them in small concrete tanks or artificial lakes, depriving them of freedom, of their families and, all too often, of their lives.

In many cases today, captive dolphins are coming from horrendous drive fisheries in places like Taiji, Japan and the Solomon Islands. The aquarium staff actually works with local fishermen to pick out the best ‘show-quality’ animals for captivity, while the rest of the dolphins are butchered with unimaginable cruelty, usually for their meat or teeth.
Some swim-with-dolphins programs will claim that their captive dolphins are “rescued” animals from strandings that cannot be released or were in-bred during captivity. In reality, only a fraction of captive dolphins were brought in through these means.

Of course, there are no ‘truth in advertising’ laws in many of the places where dolphin ‘encounters’ are advertised.

There are many fine whale-watching trips one can take by boat or from the shore to see live whales and dolphins in their natural ocean homes, and I encourage you to enjoy them with not-for-profit organizations that seek to study and understand whales and dolphins.

I’ve spent 50 years of my life working with dolphins. I love them as much as anybody. But by buying a ticket, you are inadvertently contributing to cruelty against these gentle and intelligent mammals.”

What do you think about swimming with captive dolphins? Have you taken any really great whale-watching trips? Tell us about it in the comments.



More Articles



I adore dolphins and porpoises, and have seen several of these captive ‘swim with the dolphins’ programs (in Florida and Hawaii specifically), however although I think it would be fascinating to participate, it’s hard to justify supporting programs like this, just for a 30 minute encounter. The spaces they hold the animals in are so tiny in comparison to how fast they move, and how large they actually are.
I’ve taken a few whale watching trips – one out of Victoria, BC where we saw harbour porpoise along with sea lions, eagles (no whales though), one out of Juno, Alaska where we saw porpoise (who swam along our catamaran for a short while), humpback, eagles, and sea lions, and one most recently off the Kona Coast of Hawaii’s big island (the other end of the humpback’s journey) where we saw more than a dozen different individuals, including mothers with their young and escorts. I hope to get to Tofino, BC at some point as well, in addition to New Brunswick and eastern Canada where whale watching is also possible. Seeing a juvenile humpback “play” in the wild was far more interesting than watching a trained dolphin do tricks for our amusement. The only problem that I’ve found in the wild – dolphins move too darn fast to capture them on camera!
One point missing in this article is best practices while taking whale watching trips – not to follow or “chase” animals, not to get too close, and not to stay in the same place for too long. There is also concern that the traffic and noise of boats might be contributing to health problems as well. It would be interesting to hear Mr. O'Barry’s take on the best type of excursions and how to find and support those who are making the least negative impact.


Excellent point about whale watching trips, May. I've been on a few as well, and sometimes travellers can get really anxious about getting really close for great pictures. But the best tour operators should communicate why getting right next to a whale, dolphin or porpoise can be harmful to the environment. At the end of the day, it's all about respect.

Do feel free to tell us how your next whale-watching trip goes, whether it's in Tofino or some other place WestJet flies. You can share your travel stories at http://www.upmagazine.com/share!


Thanks for this story. I actually made the mistake of swimming with two captive dolphins while on vacay in Bali, Indonesia.

I really regret getting into the pool and inadvertently contributing to the cruelty the animals had likely endured, having been removed from their natural homes. And, as O'Barry notes, the "truth in advertising" around so-called "rescued dolphins" is a hazy one.

I've made a point to relay this message to people going abroad. It's so important we realize that our decisions can perpetuate the situation whether or not we think we are contributors. We should vote with our feet and vote with our wallets when abroad.


I've been loudly and staunchly advocating against these farce "encounters" for years and am so pleased that finally the truth behind dolphin captivity is coming into public light.

It is disgusitng the way we treat animals and this horrific cruelty and exploitation for our own pathetic need for entertainment has to stop.


I visited Cozumel 10 years ago, and while there saw where the captive dolphins were kept in regards to the swimming with dolphins. I saw first hand how poorly kept these animals were, and that they were fed "dead fish" when there were schools of fish outside the enclosure of where the dolphins were kept. You could plainly see that the dolphins were not happy the way they were being kept, and one of them kept smashing itself into the side of the enclosure that they were being kept in trying to get out. Because of this wlll never be a part of these types of "entertainment"


I have to admit that I have swam with captive dolphins on two different occasions. My first a few years ago in the Myan Riviera in Mexico, and just this past January in the Dominican Republic with my daughter. It was an amazing experience on both occasions. When we got home in January we came accross Richard O'Barry's documentary "The Cove" and watched it. We were absolutely sickened by the violence towards the wild, beautiful mamals. We cried and vowed to never again swim with them in captivity. We were on a catamaran while in the Dominican and saw two wild dolphins swim along side of us. That was just as amazing as swimming with them.
I really wish that everybody would watch "The Cove" and make the decision to bouycot the 'Swim with the Dolphins' tours!
I also wish that "The Cove" could be aired on cable networks so that the general public could be made aware of the horrid situation that is taking place in Japan!!!!
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone! Hopefully as more people read these kind of stories and watch docs like The Cove, swimming with the dolphins will become a thing of the past.


I totally agree with you 100 per cent. I have always felt as you do. I feel so bad for these social and family oriented mammals. Let's us all do something about it. Boycott whenever you can and get the message out. Forward this to your friends, and ask that they forward to theirs.


My husband said it best: that it was sad, the dolphins at Xel-Ha waiting in the water for treats. We didn't do the swim with dolphins and I'm glad now we did not. Thanks for educating about these animals.


I have a question, why captive dolphins, have multiple injuries and faded pink colour on their mouth? I guess it's because they get so many kisses, but my concern is what really affect them? contact with human skin, saliva?


Kudos to Westjet and UPMagazine for publishing this story. So many tourists don't realize how horrible the dolphin industry really is.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.