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Don’t stroke the lions!

When you go to an animal park where they hold animals like lions or bears, there are signs that say “Don’t open the windows of your car!” or “Don’t get out of the car!” or “Don’t try to stroke the animals!” or “Do not reach through the bars!” And people generally follow these instructions because they know that despite the fact that the animals might have been in captivity most of their lives, they are still wild animals which means that their actions and reactions are somewhat hard to foresee. So why is it then that people seem to throw common sense out of the window when they see the chance of swimming with a wild dolphin?!?

I’ve been working with different types of dolphins for over 10 years now. “Working with” means I’ve studied them, their behaviours, their occurrences, their peculiarities. Whenever I tell people that I study dolphins their eyes grow big and they ask with a smile “Do you swim with them?” And my reaction every time is “Hell no! They are big and boisterous! Why would I want to swim with them? If I was working with lions would you ask me if I stroked the lions?”

In all seriousness, just because dolphins have this lovely eternal smile on their faces and are known to aid swimmers in need, bringing them back to shore or keeping them safe from circling sharks, it is not ok to swim with them. How would you feel if you were at home in your garden, happily doing your thing when someone comes in and follows you around, tries to touch you or even ride on your back? Or, think about trying to rest and having the intrusion of dozens of people clamouring for your attention and invading your bedroom? (This is what happens to the spinner dolphins in Hawaii who are harassed by swimmers as they rest in shallow bays during the day.) You would certainly think this person an intruder into your personal space and would likely call the police to throw them out!

So why do we think it’s ok to do this to animals in the wild? Years spent studying dolphins simply brings home to me just how little we really know about them, including how they react to certain things. This means, we don’t have a clue what they are capable of. I don’t want to demonise dolphins, but they do attack their smaller cousins, the porpoise. Dolphins can throw a porpoise clear out of the water, break their ribs and spines and cause internal bleeding. Sometimes the porpoise does not survive such an attack. Now just think about it, the average female porpoise is about 1.9m long and weighs about 75kg – not dissimilar to a human adult – so why shouldn’t a dolphin be capable of injuring a human of similar proportions to a porpoise? Even without any intention to harm, the sheer size of a dolphin may result in accidental injuries to swimmers in the water who are eager to interact with a wild version of the performing dolphins they might see in a marine park.

And these things happen, I’m afraid. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a story in the papers. A woman wanted to swim with Dusty, a solitary dolphin in County Clare, who is known to interact with people seeking to swim with her. Dusty is also known to be very territorial and apparently reacted badly when the woman entered the water.  Without warning, Dusty ploughed into her with her snout, hurtling the woman forward. The woman got out of the water and was taken to hospital where she was diagnosed with six spinal fractures, three broken ribs, and a damaged lung.

This is one of the reasons why WDC’s policy is not to swim with dolphins – first of all for your own safety. Secondly, it’s for the safety of the dolphin, because there are some viruses that can be transmitted from you to the dolphin and vice versa. Also, incidences around the world have shown that, most of the time, solitary sociable dolphins  lose out when they interact with humans: dolphins may get injured, become ill or even die as they are targeted by vandals. They can become dependent upon human hand-outs and thus abandon natural foraging behaviours, or lose their natural wariness of vessels. Finally, it is about respect for these strong and majestic creatures that deserve to live their lives free and untouched by intentional human interference.

So please, take the ‘I want to swim with wild dolphins’ off your bucket list and enjoy watching them from either a well-managed vessel, or from the shore. You can do this in the UK quite easily from Chanonry Point in Scotland, for example, where the dolphins come very close to the shore – and you.

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