Interactive dolphins in Europe, 30 years on : a brief background
"Swimming with dolphins" is no longer the bizarre and novel idea it seemed to the general public 30 years ago when pioneer Horace Dobbs first started writing about his experiences with interactive wild dolphins in the cold waters of the British Isles. Instead it features on every child's and many adults' top ten lists of 'peak lifetime experiences'. A lot of people would love to swim with a dolphin if they had the chance and increasingly they are prepared to travel long distances and pay a lot of money for the privilege - especially if the water is clear and warm and the dolphin is ready and waiting.
Meanwhile, as the new millennium arrived, so did an increasing number of genuinely wild and free dolphins around our shores, who seemed not only willing for human contact but eager to seek it out - even at the risk of their own health and life. This extraordinary phenomenon grew fastest in Ireland where we already had a strong base in the famous Dingle dolphin, but soon spread to France and England, thanks partly to the unique travels of 'Dony' who has to be the first candidate if there really is such a thing as an 'ambassador dolphin'. In the last ten years we have documented an explosion in interactive behaviour, featuring dolphins of both sexes and all ages, interacting with swimmers, divers, people in boats of all kinds and people on the shore, on jetties, harbours and beaches; 'friendly' dolphins interacting with other 'normal' wild dolphins and with other 'friendly' dolphins; dolphins remaining incredibly loyal to one tightly defined location (Fungie: 24 years in Dingle harbour!), dolphins forsaking one long-occupied territory for another nearby, and then loosening her ties even to that (Dusty); and dolphins going 'walkabout' in a major way, with visits to 5 countries and journeys of many thousands of kilometres every year recorded in great detail (Dony). These three 'major' 'Irish' dolphins have shattered many assumptions with each new boundary they have broken and record they have set, but we have also collected information and gained insights from other Irish dolphins who have been interactive for shorter periods: Venus in Ventry harbour, Co.Kerry, Dougie off Tory Island, Donegal, a dolphin in Coolagh, Co.Kerry, as well as various other dolphins who have interacted with people all round the coast on a one-time only basis.
After Dony moved to French waters, we collaborated with the local organisation Réseau Cétacés and with other individuals to share information, and thanks to them were able to continue following and recording his movements and behaviour even at a distance. All this wealth of data has been collated and made freely available on the irishdolphins.com website.
One thing leads to another and as Dony had led us to 'Jean Floc'h', another interactive dolphin resident in Brittany, we began to keep half an eye on him as well. Then there was 'Filippo' in Manfredonia, Italy, 'Flint' in the Basque country and 'Tonic' up in the Scottish Hebrides. In the last couple of years, England has been the surprising focus for much dolphin activity, with 'Marra' in Maryport, Cumbria, 'Dave' in Sandgate, Kent, 'Dolly' in Portsmouth, 'Cookie' and 'Sleekie' in Cornwall and to cap it all a new month-long tour by Dony all along the south coast in September 2007. We haven't followed the various stories from across the water too closely, partly as we have enough on our plate already and partly as we haven't had the same kind of co-operation from English cetacean groups and experts as from those in France, Belgium, Holland, Australia etc. (In fact, we haven't had any co-operation at all, on an official level!). At the same time it has been impossible to ignore the fuss in the English media which attends any manifestation of an interactive dolphin, or to entirely dismiss the many reports we have received from private individuals in the local communities affected. In England as nowhere else there has been fierce controversy between 'ordinary people', who want to see and if possible swim with the interactive dolphins, and the 'powers-that-be' in the shape of the dolphin conservation and rescue organisations who want to stop this happening and to restrict access to their own officials (who are allowed to observe and even to handle and medicate the animals when they think fit!). What lies behind that urgent desire to put an end to the interactive dolphin phenomenon has not been clarified by the numerous press releases issued by these organisations, which tend to be confused between possible threats to the dolphins' health and to the swimmers' safety, often with a good measure of 'public order' issues thrown in as well. Some spokespeople probably do have a genuine fear that the physical safety of the dolphins may be affected if people swim with them, but it seems unlikely that any of them really believe that there is any actual evidence of this, while the risk to human health and life has quite blatantly been blown up out of all proportions. Far from being science or observation based, a lot of the tendentious 'expert' pronouncements we have read in the British press look suspiciously like they have more to do with issues of power and control.
Wherever interactive dolphins have turned up around our coastline, ordinary folk have had the chance to judge for themselves whether to believe the dire warnings issued by the 'experts' or to trust the evidence of their own eyes, and the result has been largely 'no contest', although this hasn't stopped some people feeling guilty about having such fun with the dolphins when they were later told it was 'wrong'. Many others have lost any faith or belief in the harbingers of doom and gloom when they have seen for themselves a dolphin pursuing boats into inner harbours, doing everything possible to attract attention to itself and cavorting peacefully for hours on end with young and old alike. The mismatch between perceptions and reality reached a head with the forced removal of 'Marra' from the marina at Maryport, Cumbria in 2006 and subsequently her tragic death, but was also very visible at Sandgate where patrols were mounted in summer 2007 in order to stop people swimming with 'Dave' - or, you could equally say, to stop the dolphin from swimming with people, as she was clearly not hanging around a busy beach in order to get a sun-tan.
In both of these cases we received pleas for help from local residents who felt that the dolphins were being harassed and persecuted by the very people who claimed to be protecting them, but there was really not much we could do. We've had our own problems in Ireland from time to time with 'experts' flying in from Dublin to have their say, and nobody takes too much notice of our opinion here either! The media in England is particularly suggestible and anyone wearing a fluorescent jacket and driving a big jeep with letters on the side seems to be accepted as an expert, whatever nonsense they spout. One of the topics we hope to discuss at the conference is how we can best put forward the case that wild dolphins do not need 'rescuing' or otherwise interfering with just because they have chosen to interact with human beings. If they want to come into contact with people, then obviously they will bow-ride boats, visit beaches and harbours and marinas and generally appear in areas where dolphins are not normally seen, and this is just what has been happening in all three focal countries (France, Ireland and England). People being human, these situations have not always been handled smoothly, and 'crowd trouble' has occasionally ensued, although the extent of any such problem has invariably been exaggerated by the anti-friendly dolphins lobby. Crowds are of course a feature of many others aspects of life today and the side effects of their existence have nothing to do with dolphins as such, but nevertheless the dolphins have picked up the blame and the authorities have tried to 'move them on' from several ports and harbours along the south coast of England and the Atlantic coast of France. The current myth is that this is for the dolphins' 'own good', whereas in our view it represents a failure to inform and educate the general public. Similarly several dolphins have been injured by propeller strikes, in at least one case with fatal results (in Portsmouth England, 2006). Clearly spinning propellers and living flesh should be kept apart, and many responsible boat owners now fit propeller guards. But why are these fortunately rare accidents being blamed on 'swimmers'? Blanket proscriptions and exaggerated warnings issued by the established dolphin charities in defiance of the facts have steadily undermined their credibility. Ordinary people who respond to the dolphins' invitations to come and play have been criminalised, and in the end the dolphins have not been protected at all: of the two dolphins to whom the would-be rescuers have devoted most attention and resources, Marra is dead and 'Dave' has lost most of her tail fluke.
The presence of wild dolphins around our shores and the willingness of some individuals to seek out human company is one of the strangest and most exciting phenomena of our times, and one which instantly blurs the boundaries between biology, anthropology and psychology. The effects of our reckless and aggressive domination over the natural world are increasingly visible and it seems clear that the tendency to objectify and separate from nature which makes possible such misuse of our power reflects an equally painful division in the human spirit. The need to heal both our ravaged planet and our fractured selves is becoming more urgent by the day. Meanwhile the dolphins, at least as 'intelligent' as we are - but a lot smarter! - carry on as they have always done, consuming only what they need, playing much of the day, leaving no damage behind them... No wonder that people feel happy when they swim with or even see dolphins! In this situation, one might imagine that the possibility for respectful encounters between us and them would be welcomed with open arms, that such situations as present themselves would be nurtured and encouraged and that interactive dolphins would at all costs be facilitated in their efforts to meet us. Instead, a wonderful and exciting phenomenon has sadly become an intensely politicised issue with power struggles, arguments and confusion raging all around it. Thus arises a need to spend a bit of time and energy to clarify things again, which is one of the reasons for calling this conference.