Responsible dolphin swimming


It is hard to know if it is the ancient mysticism attached to dolphins that makes them so magical. For the older generation it is mostly memories of the TV series Flipper that have them dewy eyed when they think about seeing the real thing. For the younger generation we believe that it is, sadly, the growth of marine theme parks with their captive cetaceans – and us craving the ‘joyous jumping’ spectacles. From Disneyworld to Denmark, Mexico to Malta, people are still flipping over backwards to see dolphins do their thing. As the word gets out about the issues around containing wild animals in tanks for our amusement, more and more people want to get their kicks in the wild - to swim and play with them, touch them, kiss them and be healed by them. Go see them in the wild, for sure, but let them behave as they want to – this means no touching, cuddling or kissing. This is their world, and if we respect it and allow them to inhabit it peacefully, we will be able to watch them play happily in it too. The industry is starting to wake up to the fact that there is more to dolphin watching than dollar signs, and usually it is a good skipper at the helm that makes all the difference between a responsible trip and a totally irresponsible one.

Never touch wild dolphins

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better around dolphins

  • Find a responsible tour operator. Responsible Travel has spent considerable time screening all the tour providers listed on our site, and has transparent responsible travel policies. We also publish unedited, warts-and-all reviews of our guests’ experiences – which frequently include conservation issues.
  • has also worked closely, for many years, with the Born Free Foundation, as well as the World Cetacean Alliance. The latter is a global partnership which was formed to protect the world’s cetaceans from a plethora of threats. Read about the gamut of businesses and individuals, charities and conservationists, working together to save the whale. This is the portal to the people who really get whales, as opposed to just getting business from them.
  • A good quality, responsible dolphin watching trip will always have an expert guide on board. This may even be the skipper, but whoever it is, the focus should be on education rather than sensation. A responsible company will have details of guides on their website, their experience and qualifications. It will also have a responsible policy, with all of the following basics being adhered to.
  • A good, environmentally aware guide will give a detailed talk before the trip as well as during. They should create a vivid understanding of the truly wild nature of the creatures you are hoping to see, stressing that human presence must never alter that. They should also have a good scientific knowledge of species and their respective behavioural patterns.
  • Operators replacing guides with a pre-recorded spiel are only interested in cutting costs rather than caring for cetaceans. They might charge less for their service, but for a once in a lifetime experience, do you really want the no frills-no fairness experience?
  • Be wary of false flags. Some operators stick a load of eco flags on their website, showing a plethora of affiliations. However, it can happen that these organisations no longer exist. So follow up with the flags just to check that they aren’t being ‘flown’ for cynical purposes. See if a conservation organisation or affiliate is still active, by having a quick look at their Facebook or other social media page. Sadly there is still no global accreditation scheme if you want to spot the good players who have been trained, inspected and policed.
  • Your skipper should always approach dolphins slowly and never from the front or rear and they must never cross their path. If there is a second boat, it should follow behind the first, never having the dolphins in between them. There is also a practice known as ‘leapfrogging’ whereby the boat speeds up to overtake the dolphins and then lets the dolphins catch up with them. This is frowned upon by experts as it involves revving engines and distracting the animals.
Sue Grimwood, from our supplier Steppes Travel: "It’s all about approaching the from the side, so that you’re not disturbing them but keeping an eye on them, knowing what their dive pattern is, how long they’re going to be on the surface, how many breaths they take and checking that they aren’t diving too soon. If they do they can’t go deep enough to get their food."
  • Boats should always slow down when dolphins are spotted and generally you should never spend more than twenty minutes with them. Cautious boats are most likely to get the best encounters. Dolphins are intelligent; they understand when an encounter is on their terms. This makes them relaxed, which is when they start to interact and do all the amazing behaviours we love to see.
  • A pod or group of cetaceans must never be split by a boat, and nor must they ever be crowded out or encircled. If there is already a boat or two near a group of dolphins, then a responsible operator will turn away. You may feel desperate to get the Facebook photo of the day, but let it go and put your trust in the skipper.
Never feed wild dolphins
Top tip: If you want to gain a greater understanding of cruelty against cetaceans, then the award winning documentary film, The Cove, is a must. It’s based on former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry ‘s journey to come to terms with something he now believes to be totally wrong: keeping dolphins in captivity. The film uncovers the shocking way in which Japanese fishermen capture dolphins to sell on to dolphinarium. Watch it for free on Top Documentary Films.
  • If anyone suggests dolphin watching on a jet ski, just say no. In fact when it comes to protecting the marine environment generally, always say no to jet skis.
  • Some places do offer land based dolphin watching. It is a much less invasive option, so check if it is available in the region you are visiting.
  • One of the best things you can do is report any bad practice on the part of operators. In many countries Codes of Conduct go unpoliced, so sometimes it is only the passengers who are the enforcers. You don’t have to have a degree in marine biology to realise that a skipper is not acting appropriately. There are so many ways of spreading good and bad word, using TripAdvisor and social media; but if you can name and shame to leading conservationists in the country, with photos if at all possible, this will have more impact.
  • Be aware that even though there are codes of practice, there is very little policing or control of them. It is purely compassionate and ethical practice that makes a good responsible cetacean watching adventure the best thing in the world for animals and people alike.

Swimming with dolphins


  • Many regions, such as European Special Areas of Conservations (SAC), have laws which prohibit swimming with dolphins. If the destination you are visiting hasn’t put this in place, then you should only swim with an operator that is experienced in swimming with cetaceans and that has an excellent record for doing so responsibly. Your movements while in the water should be smooth, you must never touch the dolphins and stay completely clear of mothers and calves. Some operators will also have you tied onto a line linked to the boat.
  • Responsible tourism operators that do allow guests to swim with dolphins will also recommend staying for a few days and visiting dolphins on more than one occasion. If your life’s dream is crammed into one day, then this not only puts pressure on the skipper but also creates a more frenzied approach from the tourists. A longer trip allows you to build up your confidence around the dolphins, so you aren’t itching to get up close and personal, and you can adjust to the open water as well as your snorkelling equipment.
  • Swimming with dolphins should have a strictly enforced number of swimmers and duration – and no-one should be allowed to enter the water until the guide can tell the dolphins are at ease. This may be frustrating – but stressed dolphins will disappear immediately, rather ruining your experience. Never approach a dolphin; if you are lucky they will come up to you – but this is their territory, nothing is guaranteed, and ultimately you are privileged to be here – so just relax, enjoy and learn.
  • If you feel as strongly as we do, and believe that dolphins, and indeed any cetaceans, should not be in captivity for entertainment purposes, then sign our petition here. So far we've had 14,100 people sign the petition for the campaign, and you can read about the issues here.

Amanda Stafford, from our supplier Whale and Dolphin Connection: “Swimming with dolphins is so abused in some places, particularly in the Red Sea. The Azores have a lot of guidelines – there must only be two people swimming, they must keep a distance and not stay too long in the water. Putting 30 people in the water at the same time, all thrashing around, is complete and utter madness. There’s a lot of really weird stuff that goes on when it’s not properly managed.
We’ve gone to great lengths to develop management protocol around training people, getting them confident – it’s almost like training to go diving. They need to know how to use a snorkel and mask, feeling confident in the water – some companies just throw people in and they can’t even use a mask and snorkel!”
Photo credits: [Touching dolphins: Stephen Leung] [Dolphin and boat: Ben Salter] [Feeding a dolphin: Jinny the Squinny] [Swimming with dolphins: Jodie Wilson]
Written by Catherine Mack
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