I recently took a trip to Florida with my husband for our belated honeymoon (May 21-25). We stayed in a lovely condo on the Gulf of Mexico. On our trip, I was able to view captive dolphins at SeaWorld and at Clearwater Marine Aquarium before and after swimming with dolphins in the wild. This really allowed for a very unique experience and perspective. (My husband is in the military so our tickets to SeaWorld and CMA were 100% free!) We took part in the wild dolphin swim program with one other couple. It was minimally invasive as we were not allowed to touch or feed the dolphins. The pod we swam with consisted of about 25 members and it is calving season so there were plenty of tiny babies!
The most obvious difference between the captive and wild dolphins is their level of activity – it was unmistakable. In the wild, the dolphins were always moving. I have often heard captivity supporters argue that dolphins in the wild must remain constantly in motion because they spend their lives focused solely on the boring, and stressful task of survival and finding fish. I can now say without a doubt, that this is not true. I watched wild dolphins skim the sandy sea floor at top speed, leap and dive, breach and play with each other all afternoon. They had a large group of fish herded near the beach and spent hours picking off a few as they wasted away the afternoon wrestling around and playing with seaweed. These animals were hunting, and it appeared as though they were having a blast as they did it.
Even when they were at their slowest, just swimming along the bottom, socializing and touching, you couldn’t keep up with them. These animals are so full of life and motion. The dolphin shadows I had seen the day before at SeaWorld’s dolphin nursery were living in a small blue swimming pool beneath a roller coaster, where they swam slow circles. And this was the “state-of-the-art” environment that was chosen for the sensitive pregnant females and nursing calves! (I guess there isn’t much else they could do in that small pool though.) The dolphins at Clearwater were the same: shadows of animals that either sat motionless at the surface or milled about their tanks slowly. Definitely not the eventful, rush of a lifestyle that was expressed by the wild dolphins.
Another observation I made was that the average person (including me!) tends to be very misinformed regarding the reality of dolphins. Especially by marine parks and tv shows, which present dolphins as though they are interested in and curious about human beings. The wild contrasts so starkly with the “Flipper show” ideal that is pushed by these facilities. When you are in the water with them, overall they didn’t care – they cared about each other and the business they were attending to. A few members of the wild pod would show brief interest in our presence by looking at us. And of course that felt great, as though I was privileged that they were taking time out of their busy schedule to give me the time of day. In a captive dolphin encounter, people are often given a scripted 30 minute session with a trained animal whose job it is to interact with the public millions of times each year. This was far from being scripted. Everytime the animals showed interest in us (which was rare,) it was out of their own free will – not as a trained trick out of a Flipper show from animals that are tamed and controlled by humans. The first captive dolphin I saw after swimming with wild dolphins was Hope at CMA. She was lazing about on the surface of the pool as a trainer kicked around in the water with her, petting her and trying to get her to do poses on the platform. It really revealed how unnatural it is for these creatures to be interacting with and depending on humans like this. But of course, marine parks would have you think otherwise.
I believe that viewing these animals for yourself as they were intended to be (wild) is of great importance. It is certainly an experience I will never forget.