Everybody wants to swim with a dolphin. We have fantasies of floating off an idyllic island, Flipper smiling and playfully tagging us in the turquoise water. So when we found out that our catamaran day trip around the islands off Varadero, Cuba, included lunch and a swim with a dolphin in a large open-water ocean aquarium, we were excited, and a little skeptical. Language barriers, the ‘all-inclusive’ mindset of tour suppliers and the very drunken Portuguese group on the yacht made it difficult to find out where, exactly, the dolphin/s would be and how they were looked after.
So we decided that we too would climb into the creepily green water, hold our hand flat and feel Flipper’s smooth grey skin as he bobbed past – on our day tour it was as de riguer as tequila shots with the party animals.
But, I shouldn’t have.
After all – I hadn’t fed the monkeys in Ko Samui, ridden an elephant in Chiang Mai, gotten too close to the Alberta deer and would never dream of touching the penguins on Boulder’s Beach. Everyone in our group was pretty restrained and obeyed instructions, but it obviously wasn’t the case for all visitors, as we realized when the guide told us not to try and touch the dolphin’s genitals. Really? You get people like that?
I had once before ‘swam with’ dolphins in the wild. Zanzibar does a great trade in taking tourists out in modified dhows, crewmen do
ing their best to find a pod of dolphins and encouraging paying tourists to jump into the water. It sounds like a great idea because the dolphins aren’t constrained, but when seventy tourists off five or six boats are yelling nasally through their scuba goggles, flopping into one spot of water and determinedly chasing Flipper One and Flipper Two, the romance, unsurprisingly, disappears.
We encouraged our crew to take us a little further from the madding swim-suited crowd, even if it was away from the closest fin splash, and would enjoy the day. Often, curious dolphins came swimming up to our boat – usually when we were tanning with our eyes closed – and played around the stern. It was great to watch them in the open sea, and we usually had a window of about two or three minutes before boats carrying hoards of yelling Italians arrived to belly flop into the sea, the dolphins laughing as they moved just beyond their reach.
Until I watched The Cove a few months after our trip to Cuba (you can check the movie out here), I was culpably unaware of the realities of the dolphin trade. Having always assumed that good, educational, first-world aquariums obtained their dolphins in a nice, ethical way (yeah – didn’t think that through), and having had that myth dispelled I found it hard to watch and to see the extent of the carnage involved in any aspect of the dolphin industry.
It is now widely known that the first week of September marks the beginning of the horrific annual dolphin capture and killing in ‘the Cove’, a bay in the village Taiji, where dolphins are brutally stabbed with a spear behind their blowholes, drowned to death and others trapped in tarpaulins for sale where they’ll spend a life in captivity (and that’s the best case scenario – at the world’s finest, best and most educational aquariums).
More and more groups such as the Oceanic Preservation Society and the Sea Shepherd Preservation Society are risking the wrath of the local Japanese people and their lives to raise awareness about the dolphin killings, report from Taiji and get behind the lines of the Cove. Despite the slaughter, the Japanese government maintains that the stabbing method is the most humane and causes instantaneous death.
Young, attractive dolphins are separated from their families and frantically flap in fishnets until exhausted, when they are contained and sold for a life in a good – or bad – aquarium. Others are hemmed into the Cove until the slaughter begins, the first day of which leaves the sea water red and carcasses of once-grinning blue-noses corpses piled up on boat floors.
So the friendly dolphin you see being fed with silver slivers in return for the trick he performed is likely to have a tainted past of struggle and bloodshed. Unless I find myself in the unconstrained ocean curiously lacking in belly-flopping neon scuba goggles, I’ll never swim with dolphins or be within a (stabbing) pole’s distance of a dolphin show.
For more information and to find out what we can do: