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December 10, 2009

Rekindling the Waters

The truth about swimming with dolphins

Humane Society International

by Naomi Rose

Update, January 2011: Leah and a team of Japanese activists filmed more dolphin slaughters and created this video (warning: extremely graphic images) to get the word out about this continuing horror.

Swimming with dolphins was the number one “bucket list” wish when the BBC polled members of the British public a few years ago. This burning desire may be almost a cultural memory, given that stories about friendly dolphins and mystical bonds between people and these amazing animals go back to antiquity. Yet while humans eagerly seek contact with dolphins, how do the dolphins feel about it? Unfortunately, too few people consider this question—the assumption is simply that the feeling is mutual. Some rational thought, however, should lead to the conclusion that this is actually highly unlikely.

My long-time colleague, Leah Lemieux, a dolphin activist from Canada, learned this the hard way. After seeking an opportunity to swim with dolphins while on vacation in Cuba some years ago, she discovered first-hand that captive dolphins are not carefree and happy, but rather drafted unwillingly as entertainers. In the ensuing years, she developed an unusual relationship with several captive dolphins and determined that one day she would tell their story to the world. Rekindling the Waters: The Truth about Swimming with Dolphins is the result.

Naomi: Why did you write the book?

Leah: After years of documenting the lives of a long-suffering family of captive dolphins, I felt that their story needed to be told. The book was born out of a profound wish to be of some help and to try and make a positive difference in the world. I wanted to move beyond grim statistics regarding cetacean captivity (though I certainly included these) and offer readers something unique—a dolphin’s-eye view “from the trenches.” I wanted to create a window into what it is actually like for them to endure lives of servitude—how corrosive captivity can be for them, day after day and year after year—even under what are considered the “best” of conditions. An inside look reveals the ways in which these captive dolphin attractions are exploiting human visitors as well. My book is about making people aware of this two-way exploitation, because once the realization is made, most people refuse to patronize these places.

I also wanted to offer glimpses into the lives of wild dolphins, so readers could understand how impoverished the lives of captive dolphins are by contrast. In order to help people better grasp both the magnitude and subtlety of the issue, I included recent research into dolphins’ remarkable intelligence, aspects of their cultures and perhaps most importantly, the ethical angle, which concerns the evolution of our very humanity. In this way, I wanted to encompass a perspective both personal and global.

Naomi: When did you first realize that swimming with captive dolphins was wrong, and why?

Leah: In the summer of 1990, I went on an excursion to the Florida Keys, arranged through the non-profit dolphin conservation organization I was working with in Toronto. The stated purpose of this trip was to experience the difference between swimming with captive dolphins (at popular attractions in the Keys) and encountering wild dolphins in their natural habitat. I found the captive “swim-with” facilities cramped, contrived and very depressing.

By the time we met up with the wild dolphins at sea, the issue had been decided, not just for me, but for everyone on the trip. There was simply no comparison! Once you see them surfing the waves and roaming the reefs with their families, you understand this is the only place they really belong and that taking away their freedom is simply wrong.

Naomi: What is the most amazing encounter you've ever had with wild dolphins?

Leah: I was swimming off the coast of the big island of Hawaii very early in the morning, when I encountered a pod of spinner dolphins. We visited for a while and then went our separate ways, though I could still hear their sing-song whistles in the water. I was pretty far from shore—nearly a mile and in deep water. I looked up to discover I was being stalked by a pair of blue marlin, both nearly 12 feet long! I knew I was in trouble. I did the only thing I could think of: I dove deep into the water column and did my best imitation of a dolphin distress call. The marlin were almost on me—but amazingly my call was answered, and an instant later a group of nine male spinner dolphins came zooming into the fray like fighter planes! The dolphins surrounded me and the marlin vanished. My heart was pounding, but looking into the dolphins’ eyes calmed me. They slowed their pace, kept me in their midst and actually escorted me back into the shallows. I don’t know if I would have died that day if it weren’t for those spinners, but I certainly avoided a nasty encounter thanks to them.

Naomi: Where can people buy your book?

Leah: The book is widely available across the United Kingdom, but at present more difficult to get in the United States, so the best way to buy it right now would be online, for example on my website: www.RekindlingTheWaters.com. You can also ask your local library to order a copy so it will be available to others in your community. Education is key and the book is an excellent resource.

Dr. Naomi Rose is Senior Scientist for HSI.