Have Dolphins Replaced Ships as Cruise Lines’ Biggest Assets?

Despite the ongoing decline in SeaWorld’s attendance and revenues, swim-with-dolphins programs have increased significantly in the past decade, in large part, due to cruise ship traffic in the Caribbean and Mexico. Coyly marketed as “once in a lifetime experiences,” swim-with-the-dolphins programs have become a hallmark feature of the cruise experience.

The dolphin encounters are sold directly by cruise companies at the time of booking, or on board prior to reaching ports of call. Special incentives are also offered, enticing potential customers with hard to resist package pricing.

Cruise lines team up with swim-with-the-dolphins programs

Cruise lines team up with swim-with-the-dolphins programs
Photo: Dolphinaris, Cozumel

Given the aggressive promotion of these dolphin interaction programs, it is obvious the cruise companies are actively supporting an industry that exploits dolphins, and are profiting greatly from it. At present, there are 33 facilities in Mexico and over 30 in the Caribbean, with more planned for construction.

Swim-with-dolphins (SWD) programs place extraordinary amounts of stress on captive dolphins, who may interact with over 50 tourists a day. According to a report by Delfines En Libertad, entitled “Report on captive dolphins in Mexico 2015, “The SWD activities have become a prime tourist attraction, with all major tour companies selling and promoting SWD excursions. The demand to swim with dolphins in captivity has enabled the Mexican dolphinaria industry to grow exponentially. Some dolphinaria also offer dolphin therapy which is marketed as a therapy to help people with certain illnesses.”

Dolphins undergo a grueling training regimen, to prepare them for SWD programs. They are trained into submission through food deprivation techniques, kept hungry so they will perform on demand. They are routinely medicated to combat the physical and psychological stresses placed upon them. As such, many die prematurely due to illness or stress-related disorders.

In this industry, it is considered the norm for dolphins to be confined in tiny, chlorinated tanks, where they are subject to relentless sun exposure (often resulting in sunburn), noise pollution, continuous human interaction and water toxins. Some live in polluted harbor waters, in hastily constructed holding pens, “conveniently” close to cruise ship ports for quick, tourist access. The majority of dolphins who participate in SWD programs clearly show physical indications of overwork such as persistent open wounds and abrasions as a result of the encounters.

Yet, there is nothing normal about this sort of interspecies interaction, nor is it convenient for the dolphins forced into servitude by greedy business operators and unsuspecting tourists alike, eager to touch, or swim with a friendly dolphin. In the United States, this industry is regulated by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or APHIS. However, even tourists themselves aren’t safeguarded from suffering an injury during such interactions.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the SWD programs is where the dolphins, themselves, are sourced. For many, it all starts here, caught in unimaginably cruel drive hunts:

Panicked striped dolphins try to escape hunters

Panicked dolphins try to escape hunters
Photo credit: Oxana Fedorova / Dolphin Project

Others are “created” as a result of aggressive captive breeding programs.

In 2002, Mexico banned the live capture of dolphins from their waters, prompting imports from Cuba, the Caribbean, Japan and other sources. According to Ceta-Base and as was widely documented in the press, 28 dolphins captured in a mass drive hunt in the Solomon Islands were transferred in July 2003 to Parque Nizuc Atlantida, which is now owned by Dolphinaris (the same company constructing a new dolphin encounter facility in the Arizona desert). The import of the Solomon Islands dolphins generated considerable international controversy due to the culling practice, leading Australia to question the legality of the transfer. International pressure resulted in the Solomon Islands banning further export of live dolphins. At least 12 of those dolphins died within five years, though some survived less than a year or even a week after their arrival in Mexico. Carnival Cruise Lines sells dolphin excursions to Dolphinaris on their website for $120/adult.

Dolphins from the Taiji drive hunts were sold to Cabo Adventures in 2005. *(Source: Ceta-Base.) Cabo Adventures is part of the larger Adventures group and a partner of Delphinus, operator of Xcaret Park and five other facilities in the Cancun area, as indicated on their website. Interestingly, Delphinus boasts that they are accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums (AMMPA), whose home page states the following:

Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums

Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums
Credit: http://www.ammpa.org

“Alliance members strongly condemn the annual dolphin and whale hunt in Taiji, Japan and the cruelty inflicted on the animals killed or injured in the practice. Our accredited member institutions cannot and do not accept animals from this or any other fisheries, the purpose of which is to kill marine mammals.”

While Cabo Adventures is not AMMPA accredited and doesn’t claim to be, the affiliation with Delphinus makes for uncomfortable bedfellows. New information published by Delfines En Libertad also suggests that Vallarta Adventures (part of the same Adventures group) is responsible for the planned placement of dolphins in a new shopping mall development in Puerta Vallarta. It should be noted that both Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines sell excursions to Delphinus facilities.


Photo: Screenshot/YouTube

Cruise lines in Europe were put under fire for traveling to the Faroe Islands, site of the yearly grindadráp pilot whale slaughter, but the industry has largely escaped negative attention in the Caribbean and Mexico for their role in perpetuating the SWD industry and profiting heavily from it. With pricing starting at $100 per person, and an estimated 80% of customers at those facilities coming directly from cruise ships, the solution to ending the suffering of these dolphins starts with severing the partnership between cruises and SWD programs.

It’s time to call upon the cruise industry to end the promotion of dolphin captivity and exploitation. Why not focus on enhancing the cruise experience itself? It’s ironic that cruises promote seeing the world via luxury of state-of-the-art ocean liners and yet resort to unethical and “gimmicky” entertainment at the expense of suffering dolphins. We would bet the clients of these cruises would appreciate not contributing to cruelty towards these mammals, instead, reveling in the natural beauty of being surrounded by the big blue.

Wild bottlenose dolphins

Wild bottlenose dolphins in their natural surroundings

Featured image: CC BY-SA 2.0

What You Can Do
Take The Pledge to Not Visit a Dolphin Show!

Take the Pledge to Not Visit a Dolphin Show!

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Author: Christine Gau


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