Georgia Aquarium Now Touts Swimming With Dolphins
Dolphins are intelligent, gregarious creatures who are often seen swimming in groups in the wild. Their friendly nature and trainability, however, have put them in a precarious position.
Bottlenose dolphins are heavily sought-after by aquariums for their novelty and profitability. So it should surprise no one that the world’s largest aquarium has set its sights on introducing a “swim-with-dolphins” program.
As we speak, the Georgia Aquarium is expanding its swim program by bringing in four dolphins, courtesy of the Dolphin Conservation Center at Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida. The ambitious, $110-million dollar construction project, sponsored by Home Depot, is scheduled to open its doors in November 2010.
Home Depot’s owner, Bernie Marcus, has a lot invested in the Georgia Aquarium. If it weren’t for Marcus, the Georgia Aquarium may have never even existed. It opened as the world’s largest aquarium in 2005 -- debt-free, thanks to Marcus.
While dolphin and other swim-with programs are billed as educational, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the truth for the dolphins is a far cry from this family-friendly image.
Environmental educator Zach McKenna explains: “Many swim-with programs will have the public believe that the captive animals serve a higher scientific purpose. These programs call themselves ‘conservation centers,’ when in reality the only science undertaken is that which will keep the animals alive and the forced artificial insemination of female dolphins for future profits.”
A Dubious Distinction
The Georgia Aquarium has the dubious distinction of being the only institution outside of Asia to display whale sharks. In 2007, two of the whale sharks, billed to tourists as “Atlanta Attractions,” died of diseases at the Georgia Aquarium. Undaunted, the Georgia Aquarium invited people into the sharks’ space with its "Swim With Gentle Giants" attraction the following year.
Jacques Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel Cousteau questioned the swim-with-the sharks idea, given that the aquarium was not completely sure why the animals succumbed to fatal diseases the year before. 
Zach McKenna has similar questions.
“The swim-with profiteers have become very good at justifying the captivity of their animals,” McKenna states. “Many participants I have spoken to admit feelings of guilt and regret, during and after the experience, a sense that the forced experience violates the will and spirit of the animals.”
According to SeaWorld, which has its own swim-with programs, dolphins can travel up to 100 miles a day and often dive hundreds of feet below the water’s surface. Yet when confined in aquarium pools, they are forced swim unnaturally in small, shallow circles.
Tail-walking, hoop diving and playing with objects are all unnatural behaviors in the wild. Although bottlenose dolphins are exceptionally intelligent animals, they do not just learn these tricks themselves. Dolphins and other marine animals are often starved in order to get them to respond. Those who don’t are offered meager rations and placed in isolation as punishment. There is no room for slackers in this business and the animals learn quickly who is in control.
Dolphins are also extremely social beings who live in large groups -- or would, if we’d let them be.
McKenna observes, “The reasons dolphins inspire intense emotion in humans involve their cognitive behaviors and social structures. To incarcerate dolphins for the sake of human entertainment destroys that connection for the sake of profit.”
Experts believe that female dolphins, in order to spare the offspring, will not conceive in captivity, and that they rarely give birth to twins in the wild. But thanks to forced inseminations and heavy doses of hormones, it has now become the norm for dolphins to give birth to twins in captivity. The support system naturally found between free female dolphins in the wild during labor is replaced by human monitoring and intrusion. Even the loving bond between mother and child, which includes a full 18 months of nursing, is often broken.
Profit-driven aquariums and swim-with programs may separate mothers from their offspring prematurely and sell them off to the highest bidder. When the swim-with dolphins are not made to entertain tourists, they are kept isolated in holding tanks, away from their peers and social connections.
Thinking of Visiting? Think Twice.
Most dolphins confined in swim-with programs outside of the United States are caught in the wild. Dolphin trapping is an extremely traumatizing and bloody event. Oftentimes, dozens, if not hundreds, of dolphins are forced into nets. Most of the dolphins are killed for their meat, while a few survivors are sold for the entertainment industry.
McKenna concludes, “If the participants in swim-with programs had any idea about the murderous global dolphin industry they were supporting, the good feelings would fade immediately.”
Many aquarium-based zoos will tell you that dolphins are better off in enclosed areas, safe from the dangers posed to them in the wild. Dolphins have few predators, however; their biggest threat is the human.
Aquariums will also pretend that having the option to interact with marine animals benefits both people and the animals, giving humans a better insight into their behavior. But interacting with animals confined in tanks benefits no one except those who profit from them.
- Personal interview with the author (Dec. 2009).
- Richard Fausset, “Too Close for Their C omfort?” (Subheader: “ Atlanta's aquarium lets the public pay to get in the tank with sharks. Some experts say that's bad for the sharks”) -- Los Angeles Times (19 Jun. 2008).