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Maddalena Fumagalli, a cetacean biologist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, investigates these issues in a study on spinner dolphins Stenella longirostris published today in Royal Society Open Science. She spoke to Science about her findings.


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This interview has been edited for clarity and length. What do we know about the impact of these tourist activities on dolphins and whales? These dolphins [slim animals with long beaks known for their acrobatic, spinning leaps] spend the nights offshore, diving for fish, and they come to lagoons at dawn to rest and sleep. We made surveys of dolphins and tourists in the southern Egyptian Red Sea in the lagoons of Samadai and Satayah. These are sandy, shallow lagoons inside coral reefs; the water is 2 to 8 meters deep. Tourists from nearby hotels are taken on boats to places in the lagoons where the dolphins are resting.

The local government at Samadai has imposed regulations and zoning: At Satayah there are no regulations, and the dolphins are repeatedly approached by swimmers and motorboats up to 9 hours each day.

During our surveys, there were more swimmers a median of 13 at midday and fewer boats at Samadai. The dolphins typically rest in tight schools; they swim very slowly together and coordinate their breathing. That changes when the tourists arrive.

How and why did you get involved?

Other studies have shown that when disturbed from their sleep, the dolphins do more leaping. We saw this, too. The Satayah dolphins made more aerial displays than those at Samadai. Some can be curious and a little friendly.

Is swimming with dolphins a good idea?

The welfare of the Satayah dolphins is clearly being adversely affected by the unregulated tourism. And the dolphin protection measures at Samadai reduce these negative effects. But whenever tourists arrived at both sites, the dolphins consistently changed from resting in small, tight groups to being active. The time limits and zoning system at Samadai, though, helped by reducing the daily tourism interactions by about half. Those at Satayah were surprised to hear that the dolphins were there to rest.

They had no idea, and some of them were worried after they heard this. No, we never heard of the dolphins hurting the people. I walked away from the industry and went to work to end captivity for dolphins. The dolphins are often captured in barbaric drive hunts in places like the Solomon Islands and Taiji Japan, during which a pod of dolphins are herded into a bay or cove.

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A number of young dolphins are selected for captivity and the remaining pod members are stabbed with spears and left to slowly bleed to death. Members of the international aquarium industry take advantage of the slaughter to obtain a few show-quality dolphins for use in shows and swim-with-dolphin programmes.

The huge prices that aquariums are willing to pay for live dolphins subsidises the slaughter. These dolphins are conscious of the fact that their fellow pod members are being killed, causing them huge levels of stress and fear. This is only the beginning of their suffering. Once caught these dolphins are put into a small box, loaded onto a truck and then onto a plane to spend hours flying around the world.

Captive dolphins often exhibit abnormal, repetitive behaviour such as chewing on the walls, crashing their heads into the wall and, more commonly, being aggressive towards trainers, members of the public and other captive dolphins. The bottlenose dolphins used in swim-with-dolphin programmes swim over 40 miles a day in the wild. They would need to swim around their tank approximately times to achieve the same distance.

Dolphins are also very sensitive to sound - much more so than humans. Placing them in tanks with noisy water pumps, filter systems, music and cheering people exposes them to high levels of stress. The dolphins are removed from the two most important things in their lives: Dolphins are trained by giving them a reward when they do a trick right. Dolphins are the only zoo animal that has to work for their food, every day.

Dolphins do not swim with people and kiss people and tow people because they like to — they do it because they have to. They are trained to do it and if they do not, they do not eat. There is also a danger to the public. People can be rammed into or bitten by dolphins during these programmes, and the companies hush those kinds of accidents up. As stricter legislation is being brought into some countries to ban the importation of wild caught dolphins, captive breeding programmes are becoming increasingly common to help replenish the supply of dolphins.

This often involves artificial insemination. Due to the small number of dolphins in most facilities, inbreeding often becomes a problem. In an attempt to defend the use of wild-caught dolphins in their swim-with-dolphin programmes, marine parks often use words like "rescued" as it has a more sympathetic feel to it.

No matter what word they use, be it "rescued", "saved" or "rehabilitated", the fact is that they were taken from the ocean - their home, their natural habitat, where they belong. The sad fact is that these dolphins will be made to work all day, every day, days a year. They will be exploited for human entertainment and profit until the day they die.

This is a multibillion dollar industry that is driven by money. I never had a problem with animals being used for human entertainment until I visited the dolphinarium in Mexico. That experience opened my eyes and got me thinking. Up until that point I was very naive I suppose.

Since then I have looked into many animal entertainment industries and have been shocked at what I have found. From animal act circuses and elephant riding to tiger petting zoos and dolphinariums - they all involve huge levels of cruelty. Following the research I have done over a number of years, I firmly believe that it is ethically and morally wrong to use animals for our entertainment. No animal should have to suffer in any form for our amusement. We strongly oppose the capture and keeping of dolphins and other marine mammals in captivity.

We have been fighting for decades to convince Congress to change this, but the public display industry headed by SeaWorld is a powerful lobby in Washington and through the provocation of politics and greed, they have proven a major impediment to our progress.

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The dolphin captivity industry likes to use conservation and education as an excuse to defend itself and to continue exploitation of these animals. Scientists have proven that it is ethically wrong to keep dolphins in captivity. Bottlenose dolphins are not endangered and therefore there is no need to breed them in captivity. If these facilities were really concerned about conservation then they would be working to help endangered animals, not removing those that are in abundance from our oceans. As for education, "There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement" - Jacques Cousteau.

There is no conservation or educational benefit whatsoever in removing highly intelligent, self-aware and social animals from the ocean and keeping them in small tanks. This is just a smoke screen to allow them to continue making a profit off the back of animal entertainment that involves huge levels of cruelty. I can understand how members of the public can believe that we need to keep dolphins in captive facilities to learn about them and preserve them.

I once believed the same, but once you look into the industry you soon realise that learning has very little to do with it. Some swim-with-dolphin programmes are worse than others, but they are all bad - bad for the dolphins and bad for people. A lot have very serious problems with water quality. Regardless, dolphins do not belong in captivity. All captive marine mammal parks should be avoided.

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This is a multibillion dollar industry that is driven purely by money and profit at the expense of suffering animals. All of the dolphins are being used for the same reason - to make as much money for the business owners as possible. There are a number of options for the lucky few that get a second chance.

If suitable they can be rehabilitated and released back into the ocean. This is done over a number of months by placing them in a sea pen where they will slowly re-adapt to a more natural environment. During this time they will once again learn many things, like how to catch and eat live fish and become less dependent on humans.

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They were successfully released back into the ocean in July Only recently these dolphins were spotted swimming of Jeju Island, Korea. Many dolphins that have spent longer in captivity may have lost the skills needed to survive in the wild. The alternative for these dolphins and dolphins born in captivity would be to spend the remainder of their lives in a sea pen where they would be provided with the natural rhythms of the sea, tides and currents as well as the smells and sounds of the ocean.

This environment would enrich their lives and provide plenty of mental and physical stimulation, greatly reducing their levels of stress. Luckily, now-a-days we have plenty of options to view dolphins in their natural habitat. Responsible, eco-friendly dolphin and whale watching boat tours can be found in most parts of the world. These companies are easily found online. Some places offer the chance to swim with wild dolphins, often a solitary dolphin that may stay in one location for whatever reason.

Although, ethically, this is a much better way to swim with dolphins, we must remember that they are wild animals and can be unpredictable! A great alternative is to go on a responsible dolphin watching tour and observe these animals in their natural environment. These are not hard to come by, and they are sustainable and economically viable, unlike dolphin shows or swim-with-dolphin programmes.

Unfortunately, we have also seen an increase in the capture of dolphins for captivity, so we are working on that front now. We are focussing on trying to stop the captivity industry from subsidising the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji by ending the captivity trade in blood dolphins.