Swimming with wild dolphins

The year was 1996 and Wannabe was overtaking the Macarena as the school disco hit du jour. I had recently mastered long division and was obsessed with the film Flipper starring a young Elijah Wood.

All I wanted to do in life was swim with dolphins, and sure, that film might be responsible for planting the idea in my eight-year-old head, but it’s something I’ve dreamed about ever since.

Well, I have some news. It’s taken me almost twenty years, but I finally made that dream come true.

I was pretty open minded about how I would spend my time when I visited my family in Australia in December, but one thing was kind of non-negotiable — I wanted to hang out with dolphins.

The day before I headed back to the UK, I took an early train from central Perth down the coast to Rockingham and made my way to the jetty where every morning the Rockingham Wild Encounters boat departs for the daily dolphin swimming trip.

The crew members were all very friendly and made a special effort to chat to me when they realised that I was on the trip alone. Heading out to sea, they split us into groups according to our experience and ability. Each of us was sized up for a wetsuit and handed snorkelling equipment. We were given very specific instructions of how to get in and out of the water in our groups and were warned that there might be a lot of back and forth, depending on where the dolphins were and how they were behaving.

Not only did the crew talk to us with a good level of scientific knowledge about the dolphins (I’ve occasionally written about studies into dolphins as part of my work as a journalist), but they have a lot of experience in approaching them and interpreting their behaviour. Sometimes, if it wasn’t totally clear whether the dolphins were happy to see us they sent a guide in first to check if they were feeling sociable — quite literally testing the waters. Usually if the dolphins are hunting or travelling they won’t be up for playing with humans.

But when the time was right, each group gathered in turn at the back of the boat and dropped into the water one by one. You immediately grab hold of the belt of the swimmer in front of you with a specific hand (you’re told which one ahead of time) so that you’re all in a line facing the same way. At the front is the guide who has a sea scooter to pull you around so that you’re close to the dolphins.

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I could hear them before I could see them. As soon as my head was in the water I was surrounded by the sound of them clicking away, using their sonar superpowers to check us out. We were told to try and remain calm and not to let ourselves get over excited, because it’s thought that the dolphins’ echolocation skills allow them to sense our heartbeats. If they sense something unusual, or see a dramatic spike it might scare them off. We were warned not to be too splashy for the same reason.

Hearing the clicks and whistles and squeaks coming from all directions was in itself an incredible experience. I’ve tested multiple virtual reality headsets for work that offer immersive underwater experiences incorporating “interactions” with larger marine life, but they pale in comparison to the real thing. I was trying to stay calm, but I suspect that when I heard them that my heartrate actually shot through the roof with the thrill of it all.

It was when I saw them, though, that I totally lost all of my chill. Often dolphins poke their heads out of the water or leap through the spray, but ultimately the view we get from above gives us only the most miniscule of glimpses into their true grace and beauty. Under the water they twist and turn, dive up and down — often when they are in a group in a way that seems mindbogglingly synchronised. Like how do they do that? Do they rehearse routines? Are they just psychic? Probably.

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Unless we are professional ballet dancers, most humans live these physically awkward, highly clumsy lives. Yes, we may have thumbs, but man are we ungainly and often so ill-adapted to our “natural” environments.

Dolphins, however, are magic. I feel like if we didn’t have them, we would have dreamed them up as mythical creatures. Fortunately for us they’re real and if we get in the water with them they sometimes even deign to stick around. They swim down past you for one one look and then flip over and come back for more. Their curiosity and playfulness is enough to make your heart hurt with joy. I swear they are too beautiful and too good for us. We are lucky to share a planet with them. I wish I could swim with them every day.

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Altogether I think I was in the water with the dolphins about five times throughout the morning and I estimate that in all I swam with ten different creatures, including a couple of quite diddy ones.

I’m a very confident swimmer and snorkeller, but I feel like even if I wasn’t I would be comfortable and secure given the buoyant wetsuit, and the fact that you’re constantly linked to all the other participants.

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At the end of the day as we sped back to shore the dolphins followed us, diving through the big waves behind the boat. Some people think this is one way dolphins clean parasites off their bodies, others think it’s a way for them to conserve energy while travelling. Both sound plausible, but watching I suspect it’s a lot of fun for them too.

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Responsible dolphin tourism

There are so many ways you can interact with dolphins in Australia, but after reading around I settled on the swimming trip with Rockingham Wild Encounters. I chose the trip not only because of the company’s 99 percent (!!!) success rate, but because unlike many companies out there, Rockingham values the safety and wellbeing of the dolphins, not just the enjoyment of its customers.

Rockingham is the only dolphin swimming operator in the area and it only runs one trip a day, never spending too long with one group of dolphins so as not to harass them.

Many locations in Australia that offer dolphin encounters tempt the dolphins to the shore or the boat by feeding them fish. While this might seem harmless, it’s absolutely not. Many places in the world, including the US, have made the feeding of wild dolphins illegal — here’s why:

  • It alters natural dolphin behaviour. Dolphins are hunters, not beggars, but frequently feeding them discourages them from relying on their hunting skills for food. It also means that mothers are less likely to pass on those vital hunting skills to their calves.
  • It endangers them physically. There are multiple examples of dolphins that have become accustomed to begging — particularly from fishermen — and incurred injuries from boat propellers or getting tangled up in fishing lines as a result.
  • It makes them more likely to eat things they shouldn’t. Beggar was a famous Floridian dolphin who gained a taste for human food. He isolated himself from other dolphins and would pester tourists for scraps. Often they fed him hot dogs, and even beer. He died aged 20 (most wild bottlenose dolphins live between 30-50 years).

Rockingham also enforces a very strict no-touching policy for the sake of dolphin and human health and safety. There is a risk that humans and dolphins could contract zoonotic illnesses (diseases that can be transmitted between animal and humans) from one another. Dolphins also have very sensitive skin that can be easily damaged by human nails. Not only would touching the dolphins put us and them at risk, it’s kind of disrespectful and potentially scary for them.

As you might be able to guess from the fact that I take such a hard line on the treatment of wild dolphins, I have zero tolerance for dolphins being kept in captivity.

It’s not surprising that humans are drawn to dolphins, but the truth is that any human that really loves these special creatures won’t support keeping them in a tank where they are likely to suffer intense physical and psychological damage. Let’s face it — that’s a pretty messed up way to treat anything you claim to love.

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I’ve signed Born Free‘s pledge to never visit any establishment that have captive dolphin facilities, and if you’re dolphin lover I thoroughly encourage you to do the same.

Another thing you can do to take a stand against captive dolphins is to make a point of seeing them in the wild. If you swim or interact with dolphins in captivity, they are effectively trapped with you and don’t have any choice but to be there. When you plop in alongside them in the ocean (without tempting them with food!) and they stick around to swim with you, they are choosing to be there — if they don’t want to be bothered they’re away like a shot.

Being face to face with a wild dolphin who is as curious about you are as you are about it is such a special and rare thing. You get to have a mutually respectful interaction with one of the only creatures in nature that has anywhere near (according to some studies) the intelligence of human beings.

24046613006_c3184cfbb7_kAt over $200AUD (about £100), trips like the one I took with Rockingham Wild Encounters might be quite pricey for a half-day activity, but remember that every one of us who chooses to see dolphins in the wild and give our cash to companies that treat them well is sending a message to the tourism industry about what we want from them. And this goes for all wildlife encounters.

It’s also important to remember not to take for granted that just because a company is popular, well-established and makes claims about conservation and research activities that it will automatically put the needs of animals first. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, challenge conventional wisdom and hold a trip or establishment to your own standards. The result will be happier, safer and more natural animal encounters for us and for them.

A note: my GoPro broke on another snorkelling trip in Aus so unfortunately I couldn’t take any pictures of the dolphins myself. Rockingham Wild Encounters kindly agreed to let me publish the pictures they took that day instead. You’ll know which ones they are as they’re clearly marked.

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