Swimming with Dolphins in Hell


Discovery Cove. Photo by Diana McCorry.

By: Diana McCorry /

The “Hell” I’m referring to is Florida. In its defense, there are incredibly beautiful wildlife sanctuaries in this state, the most famous of which is Everglades National Park. But in comparison with the respectful, appreciative, “polite” and “worldly” relationship with animals that we tend to aspire to, most of Florida is Hell. Orlando is the 9th circle.

I’ve never been anywhere in my entire life where animal and human cultures clash so obviously or so messily. And I’m from New Jersey. Aside from the devastating amount of displaced real animals (ducks in the hotel pool, etc.), Orlando bombards its visitors with representations of animals, all of which have been appropriated by its supermassive entertainment industry. Mickey Mouse, Shamu, Nemo, and all their cartoon kin have been heavily anthropomorphized, and very few of them are ever portrayed as “wild.”

Above all other animals (except maybe that one mouse), Orlando and the rest of the Sunshine State are obsessed with dolphins. The state animal is actually the Florida panther, which is practically extinct for obvious reasons, but I didn’t see any panthers in the gift shops. Almost every major tourist attraction that doesn’t feature Disney features dolphins. This may be due to the fact that Floridian waters claim 6 indigenous species of dolphin, or it might simply be the direct result of Sea World’s success. Sea World, by the way, was originally planned as an underwater restaurant.

Florida’s status as the dolphin capital of the world is a relatively recent development, but dolphins have been a part of human culture for quite a long time. They were considered good omens in both Greek and Hindu mythologies. Frescoes from the Bronze Age depict dolphins in ways shockingly similar to contemporary western illustrations, in which the animals possess uncanny human eyes.

Observing dolphins in the wild, humans have always been struck by their intelligence, playfulness, and complex interpersonal relationships. These characteristics are often readily apparent to casual observers because dolphins are frequently curious about humans when they see them, and they’ll get surprisingly close. Everyone’s heard at least one story about a human or humans having a friendly encounter with dolphins in the wild. Who could forget the time Dick Van Dyke fell asleep on his surfboard and was allegedly escorted home by a pod of altruistic bottlenoses? Of course, it’s absurd to think that dolphins feel nothing but benevolent curiosity toward humans, and throughout human history, our sense of awe for nature has often mixed with fear. Occasionally, a human has misinterpreted a lonely, sexually frustrated dolphin’s approach as an invitation to play, and has subsequently ended up in a rather awkward position. That said, there are no recorded instances of dolphins raping people (if it seems silly that I have to say this, Google “dolphins rape people”), and only one instance of a human killed by a dolphin. Several witnesses to this event reported that the victim had been extremely drunk and hitting the dolphin repeatedly.

Because humans have been swimming with dolphins in the wild (and bragging about it) for centuries, and because dolphins will often do impressive and unprompted “tricks” in order to show off or attract the attention of potential playmates, humans inevitably started capturing dolphins to capitalize on their drawing power. Yet another example of how our awe for animal intelligence can quickly evolve into an impulse to dominate and exploit, to demonstrate our superiority.

Swimming-with-dolphins programs really started to gain popularity in the 1960’s with the arrival of Flipper, and their popularity hasn’t waned since. These programs have taken in three primary environmental scenarios: the dolphinarium, the wild, and the natural demarcated area. Most animal rights activists believe that humans should only swim with dolphins non-invasively in the wild, where the animals have the freedom to accept or decline the invitation to interact. But the most popular places to swim with dolphins are dolphinariums, where dolphins live in captivity and are forced to swim with humans, but where the environment is almost always designed to resemble “the wild”. I visited one of each scenario, in an attempt to find differences and intersections in their practices, and just as importantly, in their visitors. I was particularly interested in the idea of empathy, since our desire to interact with dolphins is largely based on our knowledge of their similarity to us.

The first place I visited was Discovery Cove in the 9th circle of Hell, Orlando, Florida. This is the most popular swimming-with-dolphins facility in the world. It’s owned by Sea World, so you know it’s good. Discovery Cove is a dolphinarium, a specialized marine park where trained, captive dolphins live in enclosures designed to resemble the wild (to the humans, not the dolphins). Visitors pay approximately $300 for general admission plus a 30-minute Dolphin Encounter,which includes a hug, a kiss, and a “dorsal pull” around the enclosure (you hold the dorsal fin and the dolphin pulls you around). Discover Cove is extremely expensive, incredibly popular, and literally as far away from the ocean as you can get in the state of Florida. I didn’t go inside. Unfortunately, they don’t share information about individual dolphins, so I never learned their backgrounds or histories.


Discovery Cove. Photo by Diana McCorry.

The Wild Dolphin Project is, in most ways, at the other end of the spectrum. These researchers (bona fide marine biologists, not Sea World employees), know the names, ages, and personal histories about every dolphin they work with. The Wild Dolphin Project is a 501(c)3 that consists of a small group of scientists who non-invasively study and report on the behavior of a particular pod of free-ranging Atlantic spotted dolphins. Its headquarters is in a rundown office park in Jupiter, Florida. It’s a modest, consistently underfunded enterprise, but their findings on dolphin communication have been widely published and Dr. Denise Herzing even has a TED talk. For about $3000, you can accompany Herzing and the team on one of their 10-day excursions by catamaran to the Bahamas, where the pod lives. However, even though these researchers have been cultivating a relationship with this group of dolphins for over 25 years, visitors are not permitted to initiate any physical contact with dolphins, and even the researchers try to avoid it. Instead, they simply offer to communicate with the dolphins through a keyboard that imitates their vocalizations, and if the dolphins don’t show an active interest, they give up for the day. According to the standards of most animal activists, these practices seem impressively responsible. However, according to a marine biology student who worked with the program last year, the Wild Dolphin Project has recently discontinued all of its local research, which focused on locating and studying dolphins along the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida, where dolphins are frequently killed by boat traffic and are in desperate need of conservation efforts. These efforts were allegedly abandoned in favor of more profitable trips to the Bahamas. Though I find it hard to believe that this decision was as profit-driven as it sounds, it certainly is unfortunate.

My last stop was the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, an island off the southern coast of Florida. Like the WDP, it’s a non-profit organization. The DRC adopts and cares for stranded, injured, abused, and “retired” dolphins (as well as two very friendly sea lions and a small group of birds) and facilitates therapeutic dolphin encounters for veteransand children with special needs. Researchers here have also discovered dolphins’ capacity for “object permanence” and other important cognitive functions. These dolphins live in a “natural demarcated area”—essentially, a strip of fenced-off ocean. General admission is about $20 and allows a human visitor to spend the day on the docks, watching the dolphins and sea lions interact with humans and each other. Another $30 will get you a “handshake” with a dolphin, but $200 buys a “30-minute Dolphin Encounter” that is virtually identical to the one at Discovery Cove. That’s where the DRC gets slightly problematic for some people. All but three of the dolphins at the DRC were not actually rescued, but born in captivity on the premises, and are, in fact, descendants of the animal actor who played the original Flipper. And Flipper, the show that led to international adoration and captivity of dolphins, was shot right here at the DRC. None of these dolphins will ever be released into the wild, and all of them are trained from an early age to obey and physically interact with strange humans on a daily basis in exchange for food.This somewhat less heartwarming information was, incidentally, pretty hard to get out of the staff members. The DRC also has a cafe on the property that serves coconut shrimp and mahi-mahi (which is “dolphinfish”, not dolphin, just so we’re clear, but I still think it’s weird).

These three programs, as dramatically different as their motivations and practices seem to be, are not nearly as incongruent as I’d imagined at the outset. The visitors and staff at each of these facilities—at least the ones I encountered—were, in fact, very much alike. The employees at Discovery Cove were not sociopaths, and the customers were clearly genuine animal lovers. The people I spoke to who worked with the WDP didn’t seem like snobs or extremists, or even exceptionally responsible people. All of the visitors I met were excited to interact with dolphins, referred to the ones they’d interacted with by name and with human pronouns (never “it”), and virtually all of them raved about how clever and friendly they were. Many visitors even commented on the sadness they felt at seeing these animals in captivity, and were concerned about specific behaviors or markings that indicated stress or abuse.

The practical and ideological lines between the three programs were similarly blurrier anticipated. Comparable motivations geared toward entertainment and profit were definitely present in all three. However, it should be said that none of these programs allow any free interaction time between visitors and dolphins, which is apparently common at other marine parks and often leads to humans overstepping their boundaries. All three programs also consistently pay special attention to cultivating the emotional connection children seem to feel with dolphins. For instance, a little girl I met at the DRC spent a long time talking to Jax, a dolphin who was rescued in 2007 and who is said to have a special fondness for children. Their interest in one another was unmistakable, and I was delighted to hear a staff member patiently answer the girl’s endless stream of questions about Jax. She proudly told me afterwards that he was her best friend.


Photo from: http://www.wilddolphinproject.org

I think I made a friend at the DRC, too. Gypsy, the eldest daughter of the original Flipper, followed me up and down the dock for a while, even though I’d walked a considerable distance away from the fish-wielding trainers. As reluctant as I was to think she had any real interest in me, and as revolted as I was at the thought of participating in her exploitation, I have to admit I almost paid the extra $30 for a handshake.

All in all, it seems to me that humans have always been and will always be interested in interacting with dolphins. Because very few of us are lucky enough to have a chance encounter with one in the wild, institutions like these will continue to thrive, and as long as we’re willing to pay them, they will always be problematic.



DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-animal Studies. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

“Explore Discovery Cove.” Explore Discovery Cove – Swim with Dolphins, Snorkeling in Florida. Web. 12 May 2014. http://www.discoverycove.com/

“In Their World… On Their Terms….” Wild Dolphin Project. Web. 12 May 2014. http://www.wilddolphinproject.org/

“Dolphin Research Center.” Dolphin Research Center. Web. 12 May 2014. http://www.dolphins.org/


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