[Click here for article on dolphin-swimming gear]
We neither encourage you to go swimming with wild dolphins nor do we advise you against it. Each situation is different and is a matter of personal choice. However, here are some issues you might like to consider.
Normally, wild dolphins do not tend to approach human swimmers or divers. As there is no way that even the strongest of human swimmers or divers can approach a healthy free-living dolphin unobserved or without the dolphin being able to move away at a far greater speed, almost all human-dolphin encounters in the ocean take place entirely on the dolphins’ terms and at their discretion. This simple fact is often forgotten when bureaucrats and regulators discuss measures to protect dolphins from too much human interest. (*possible exception: nocturnal spinner dolphins in Hawaii use defined shallow inshore areas for resting and socialising, and may be vulnerable to over-enthusiastic attention from swimmers and kayakers). Swimming with dolphins, though, is a fundamentally different situation from a boat-based encounter. With sufficient horse-power and ignorance at their disposal, it is possible for humans in fast manoeuvrable boats to severely harass wild dolphins. Researchers do it regularly, in fact, in Texas and Florida for example, in order to tag dolphins, take blood samples, weigh and measure them etc in the cause of 'science'. It is true that even in a confined space and with many boats pursuing them, adult dolphins have an extraordinary ability to disappear at will. The Dingle dolphin has proved this on many occasions and a few hours’ observation of Dingle harbour on a sunny summer’s day will soon reveal that even if it is a circus going on, the ringmaster is the dolphin! Thus, even over-eager boat skippers may not pose quite so much of a threat to wild dolphins as might be thought. Nevertheless, this type of pursuit of family groups in particular may well prevent dolphins from feeding, separate mothers from calves and severely stress the animals. It may also be that in Dingle we have become too used to the spectacle of 15 or 20 motor boats chasing one dolphin around a harbour, and people may have forgotten that not all dolphins are used to this kind of treatment or able to cope with it in the way the Dingle dolphin does. The existing regulations which outlaw this behaviour should therefore be enforced in respect of all dolphins, whether interactive or not.
People in the water, however, generally pose no direct threat to a wild dolphin and we therefore believe that there should be no restrictions on swimming with dolphins as such. A problem may arise, however, when the dolphin appears to be too trusting for its own good. Both ‘Dusty’ and ‘Dony’ are cases in point. These dolphins not only allow swimmers to approach and touch them, which ‘Fungie’ rarely does, they allow us within easy reach of vulnerable areas such as their eyes and blowhole. When they do this, are they in danger of being damaged by us clumsy human beings, with our long fingernails and metal jewellery for example? And are they at risk of catching human diseases, as some people believe, despite the powerful disinfectant effect of salt water? We don’t have any records of actual injuries occuring to wild dolphins in these ways, but maybe we should err on the side of caution, despite the apparent robustness of dolphins. Consider taking off your jewellery, cutting your nails and being careful where you touch!
We discuss in another article
the topic of whether dolphins such as Dusty can actually be dangerous to human swimmers. To summarise briefly, reports of human injury while swimming with wild dolphins are incredibly rare - as rare as reports of dolphins being injured by human swimmers - and most are probably due to accidental boisterousness rather than malicious attacks. You are far more likely to scratch yourself on a rock getting in and out of the water than to suffer damage from a dolphin.
Which brings us to the real dangers of the swim-with-dolphins situation. Dolphins live in the open ocean and humans live on land. There are places - such as off the Bahamas - where people swim with dolphins in the open ocean, but this is exceptional. If the two species are going to meet, it will by and large be on the margins of their home environments - in shallow water near the shore. This is usually more dangerous for dolphins than being out at sea and more dangerous for humans than being on dry land. In Dingle there are very strong currents in the mouth of the harbour, which make swimming tricky at times, and it is also a busy shipping channel. In Doolin, the surging swell was likely to wash inexperienced swimmers onto the rocks (however, inexperienced swimmers tended not to go in the water unless it was flat calm).
At Derreen near Fanore, the situation is particularly tricky as access to the water is usually fairly easy from the rocks, and yet there can be quite a powerful surge. As the dolphin will come in so close to the shore, young children are tempted into the shallow water just where it is most dangerous, rather than having to swim out beyond the surf, and we have seen that many adults do not supervise their children closely in this situation. (This was worst when a lot of people were swimming from the slipway). The children are very vulnerable to being knocked down by a freak wave, and are likely to be fairly unaware of such a wave approaching while their attention is on the dolphin. Moreover it is uncertain what the dolphin’s own reaction would be if stuck in the shallows, surrounded by half a dozen people all trying to touch her, when such a surge came along and threatened to strand her. Maybe she would let herself strand and swim out with the next wave, maybe she would wriggle enough to hurt someone standing too close. Better not to find out, surely! We recommend always leaving dolphins clear access to the deep water and never surrounding them from all sides. So far no-one has been hurt in any of these situations, so let’s hope we can keep it that way.
On the subject of clear access, we would also like to appeal for a bit of respect for our fellow human beings when swimming with dolphins. Time and time again we have seen someone developing a personal interaction with one of the wild dolphins, only to have a special moment ruined by other swimmers thoughtlessly butting in. This happened with Fungie and it’s happening now with Dusty at Fanore. If the dolphin stops still and faces a swimmer head to head or lies motionless on her back while the person rubs her tummy, this is not a signal for everyone else to pile in on top of her and touch her wherever they can reach! It is, rather, a sign that trust has been established between two individuals of different species – a trust that can easily be broken if it’s not respected by the rest of us.
When this happened with Fungie, he would just leave, and regular swimmers were often tempted to swim further out into deeper water to avoid being crowded by over-eager hangers-on. Dusty is incredibly tolerant of intrusive behaviour, but several incidents recently in which she has lashed out at ‘innocent’ bystanders have reminded us how easy it can be to push the boundaries too far.
Think of it this way. You’ve been invited to a party at the house of a famous personality who you admire and would love to meet. When you arrive, your hostess is deep in earnest conversation with someone who appears to be an old friend. Do you go up to them and tap her on the shoulder while she is still talking? Worse, do you try to slide your hand up her leg before you have even been introduced?! I think not, unless you want security to throw you out. Rather, you wait in the background until she turns to you and greets you herself. Then you see how you get on for a while before you attempt any greater intimacy.
It’s not as if you can’t have fun while someone else is playing with the dolphin. It’s fascinating to watch how differently Dusty behaves with different people and how different creative moves by the other swimmers can elicit new responses from her. And your turn will come – Dusty above all dolphins is very particular to go round and greet everybody in the water, not just the best swimmers or the people she has known the longest.
We humans eagerly use our hands to explore and manipulate the world around us. Dolphins aren’t like that; they’re rather more subtle. With their super-sensitive sonar, they already have the full measure of your body, including the structure of your bones and your detailed internal anatomy, right down to the remains of your last meal in your stomach, before you have even seen them coming towards you. So try to restrain your automatic urge to reach out and grab hold on first meeting.
Dusty takes care of her own security and has been known to snap at people and even to butt them in the stomach or chest if she takes a dislike to someone. We don’t really know why she picks on some people and not others, but often it seems that the only thing they have done ‘wrong’ is to get a little too close when Dusty wanted to be interacting with someone else. But even if you are not in danger of getting hurt, it makes no sense either to spoil someone else’s special moment or to be able to boast "I touched a dolphin!" when the dolphin didn’t particularly want you to touch her!
When dolphins meet, they don’t touch straight away like we do. They circle around each other, they swim side by side, they dive down, they come up, they race along together, they check each other out. Do the same with Dusty and allow yourselves time to get the measure of each other. The first stages in communication without language – whether with small children, with strangers who don’t speak your language or with other species – are often based on miming and on imitating each others’ gestures. You can proceed from there to playing all sorts of games with Dusty. She likes the same games as small children do – peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, investigating new objects, dropping and retrieving them, etc. Then when you have established some rapport, Dusty will appreciate physical contact just as much as we do. She is at least as sensual as a human being and delights in being stroked and tickled, and she is sensitive to all ranges of pressure from the lightest brushing of the fingertips to a full-on rubbing or scratching, depending on her mood and your relationship. If you feel that she is inviting you to touch her, she will normally be presenting a suitable part of her body to you already, maybe her back or her flanks. The head and belly areas are more intimate and it may be a while before she offers you her chin or her tummy to be tickled. Never chase after her to grab hold of her, unless you have already established rapport and are sure you are in a game of chase with her. Be careful around her eyes and blowhole, and we suggest you avoid her genital area too. If she starts to quiver all over, her sensual pleasure in your caresses may be becoming sexual, and you should back off before you get more than you bargained for!
Try to be inventive and responsive and to look out for patterns in her behaviour. As soon as you think you’ve found one, I bet you she does something contrary and surprises you! We have a lot to learn about dolphins and our relationship to them, so see if you can add to our understanding and to the dolphins’ delight rather than being just another predictable ‘dolphin-grabber’!
© 2003 Graham Timmins