When I was a child I was obsessed with orca whales. I mean OBSESSED. My bedroom was papered into one mass collage from every magazine and calendar picture I could find, and I could tell you every detail about an orca’s psychology and physiology on request. I watched the Free Willy movies religiously, fast forwarding through all the boring plot portions to get to the close up shots of the whales.
When I was thirteen we went to Marine World and I made sure I wore a bright neon shirt. When we entered the park I marched directly down to the whale tank and asked the trainers if they pre-picked people to pet the whale. They stared at me, likely surprised by my boldness and told me no, it was at random. I thanked them and made sure I was early to the show.
One person was picked to touch the whale’s flukes. Then a second was chosen to let the whale kiss them. My hand was up and waving and I was nearly tearful, knowing I would never have the chance again. The third and final chance came and the trainer pretended to prepare to point to another section of the stands, then whipped around and pointed at ME! I was thrilled! They had me kneel on the platform level with the water and pet the whale’s face, tongue and feel her teeth. My step-mother, in a rare act of kindness, purchased a whale necklace for me as a gift to commemorate my day. I cried afterwards and relived that high for over a year. I wish I had pictures.
The next time I saw orcas was in the wild after moving to the San Juan Islands in high school. I ended up going out frequently over the four years I lived there, tracking J, K and L pods, and they always loved showing off for the boats. They still are my favorite animal to this day.
When I was twenty I went on a solo trip to Mexico. I saw an advertisement for a “Trainer for a Day” dolphin program and I jumped at the chance. For a couple hundred bucks you can spend the whole day learning about, feeding, playing with and practice your hand at training dolphins. The day was educational and fun and I still have my cheesy dolphin trainer diploma.
I even got to spend an hour playing with sea lions.
What I noticed while I was swimming with those dolphins was that they did not seem to have much joy in the interaction. They liked the fish and all, they did what they were told to do with me, but it seemed absolutely perfunctory and without soul. It seemed contrary to everything I’ve ever read about dolphins, and finally getting my hands on them in real life and finding them to be somewhat depressed was exceptionally disappointing and concerning.
I actually had more fun playing fetch with a dolphin in the marina (where they are free to come and go as they please) for an hour before the program started. That dolphin seemed to have plenty of joy and loved our game. That dolphin came up to ME. I was staring at him, he went away for a ball and brought it to me, initiating the game.
Watch: Video of us playing together.
I’m sure many people have seen the documentary “Blackfish” (available on Netflix) by now, so they understand that keeping orcas in cramped tanks with crappy diets and lack of socialization is not healthy for them. When I was a child all the books I read justified keeping cetaceans in tanks for the educational opportunities and interactions with them that we wouldn’t otherwise have – this is somewhat a lie. We have learned the most from tracking and studying them in the wild.
What about swimming with dolphins?
Well, my first trip to Hawaii I took a boat out with the Pacific Whale Foundation to track some False Killer whales and swim with Spinner dolphins. When we found the dolphins we were looking for, the captain said a very peculiar thing. She said they tried to avoid people who wanted to swim with them, but they have learned that the humans don’t give up and will follow them around until they get what they want. So they hang out in a certain area each morning, perform their obligatory tourist work, then head out to do their own thing as soon as all the boats have let them be. Wild dolphins, punching the clock for volunteer tourism. They get nothing out of it.
The dolphins (pictured above) swam with me (and everyone else in the vicinity) but avoided eye contact and treated it like a check list. I tried to extend a sense of empathy - that I felt bad that they had to do this, and one dolphin stopped swimming and faced me in the water, staring at me. Then they all left. Again, it was so disappointing.
Once while swimming off the coast of Florida I happened upon some Common dolphins passing through and they wanted nothing to do with me. Intriguing.
In 2012 I took a trip to the Keys and we took a boat out for a snorkeling excursion. We came upon a large pod of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins (pictured above). The operator of the boat would not LET us get into the water with them. That’s when it started to click that maybe a lot of this marine mammal tourism is really just marine life harassment. It’s okay to approach and observe (there are federal boating laws about how to properly approach cetaceans) but maybe they don’t want us to follow them around and swim with them.
As pictured: It is a much different scenario when THEY approach US. Those interactions are sincere and precious!
My husband and I have just returned from a trip to the San Juan Islands where we went out on one of the boats from my childhood to observe whales in the wild. We saw Dahl's porpoises and three Humpbacks. I think it is a truly respectful and appreciative way to see them. I have a trip planned soon to Cozumel, Mexico. I saw an option to play with captive manatees – an animal I have always wanted to get close to. But I can’t. I just can’t. It is blatant exploitation.
I have a lot of good memories being in the water with dolphins, but at the end of the day, there are a few things that bothered me about the experiences, both in pools and in open water. Sentient creatures should be given the element of choice. Anything less is harassment.