Swimming with dolphins

BAVARO, Dominican Republic -- The two dolphins glide around the tourists, who hesitantly reach out to stroke the glossy backs. A photographer snaps a picture. One of animals seems to grin.

"You can feel the connection with them, they seem to know us," Lim Streckland of St. Louis said as he emerged from the pool.

But just as such programs are enjoying a boom in popularity, debate is growing about whether the programs are harmful to the creatures.

The controversy has intensified since the death of a recently captured dolphin in Mexico, in February, and the discovery in July of two dolphins abandoned by a traveling show in the mountains of Guatemala.

Animal rights activists argue the shows are cruel and unnatural, and they've targeted Manati Park in the Dominican Republic as one of the worst. They say the park gives the dolphins no place to run if they don't want to play with people.

The owners of "swim with dolphins" shows, like many dolphin trainers around the world, say such activists are romantics who stupidly attribute human characteristics, like the desire for freedom, to wild animals that don't know the difference.

"This you can equate to living in a hotel with room service," said George Rogers, technical director of Manati Park in Bavaro, near the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic. "They get the best food here, the best vets in the world."

An ethical question

Both sides look to science to resolve the question, but scientists can't tell if a dolphin is happy.

"Should animals be kept in captivity is not a science question -- it's an ethical question," said Doug Demaster, a marine biologist with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

Demaster's studies suggest dolphins die at an abnormal rate during the first few months of captivity, and that afterward their survival rates match dolphins in the wild.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the U.S. Humane Society, says that should tell us something. "Most animals in captivity tend to live longer -- but dolphins don't," she said.

Those who make a living from dolphins swimming with tourists point to another study, published in Marine Mammal Science journal in 1995. It found "no behavioral evidence that controlled swims with adequate refuge were (harmful) for human swimmers or dolphins."

"Swim with dolphins" programs first gained popularity in Florida in the 1980s and spread to other countries in the past decade. The World Society for the Protection of Animals, based in Framingham, Mass., said there are about 18 in the United States and others in Mexico, Anguilla, the Bahamas and Bermuda.

Plans for tourists to swim with dolphins in an artificial lagoon to be dredged from mangroves in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, are going ahead despite warnings it could backfire in the upscale Caribbean destination.

"Some frequent long-term visitors to the island have already expressed their horror and indicated that they are unlikely to return," the Association of Reef Keepers has warned.

Developers at Prospect Reef Resort have government approval for the project, which they say will educate people about dolphin conservation. Guests would pay from $75 to $145 an hour to wade or swim with the dolphins. Three dolphins arrived Sept. 30 for swims scheduled to begin later this year.

In the Dominican Republic, Manati Park has received 1,600 letters from opponents recently. But it also gets about 20,000 visitors a year. Six of them at a time swim with two or three of the park's five bottlenose dolphins while two trainers stand by.

Streckland, the American, didn't see a problem for the dolphins.

"Their conditions here seem good to me," he said. "It's not like anyone here is hurting them. They're in real danger in the oceans, with nets and fishermen and even sharks."

The Dominican Republic doesn't regulate the dolphin program. Instead, the park owner voluntarily follows most rules developed by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service -- limiting the number of tourists to dolphins and trainers and the time the animals spend with tourists.

The only U.S. standard unmet is for a refuge if the dolphins don't want to swim with people.

Park owner Jose Miguel Moreno says his 16-foot deep pool is nearly twice the depth of the 9-foot U.S. rule, so the dolphins can do what they do in the wild to escape: dive. Tourists wearing lifejackets can't pursue them.

"If they (dolphins) remain on the surface, it's because they're happy to do it," Moreno said.

Opponents differ.

"Dolphins don't wave at people," Sherwin said. "They don't like people hanging on their backs. They do it because they're hungry and they'll get food."