We were travelling through the Bolivian Pampas in a small motorised canoe, when we became aware that there was something following us.
The driver stopped the boat and told us that they wanted to play. Puzzled, we peered into the murky water. That was when I caught my first glimpse of the elusive Pink River Dolphin.
They darted about the boat and splashed around playfully for a good few minutes before disappearing off down river.
It didn’t last long but it was beautiful to watch and remains a highlight of my 6 month trip around South America.
In stark contrast to my experience, I know many people who have swum with dolphins or watched them perform in captivity. Swimming with dolphins tops most people’s bucket list and our volunteers are no different.
I know that many of our volunteers go to these shows each year throughout the world, completely unaware (as I was until a few months ago) that there is anything wrong with it. Few people are aware of the suffering these animals endure in order to entertain us, and I wanted to find out more about it.
I spoke to Ric O'Barry, the world famous former dolphin trainer who featured in the must-watch 2009 documentary The Cove, which highlights the capture and slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.
I also spoke to Keith Hutchinson, campaigner and animal rights advocate, and to Laura Killalea from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the world’s largest animal protection organisation, to get their opinions.
Their take on this industry really brought home to me how important it is that people hear about the issues relating to keeping dolphins in captivity.
From mass slaughters and miserable living conditions to hushed-up attacks on humans – in this blog we look beyond the dolphin smile and ask whether or not it’s time to kick swimming with dolphins off the bucket list.
In your opinion, why shouldn't dolphins be kept in captivity?
Dolphins are highly intelligent animals that live in complex social groups. Wild dolphins are far-ranging, fast-moving, deep-diving predators that swim huge distances each day. They spend their days mating, foraging for food and playing with other pod members.
They use their echolocation to explore their diverse ocean environment. Their sonar is more evolved than that of a nuclear submarine and they express themselves in a very complex language that we can’t understand.
Removing a dolphin from its family and putting it into a small, featureless tank with no mental or physical stimulation prevents a dolphin from expressing its natural behaviour. It leads to health problems and, in many cases, a shortened life expectancy.
Dolphins are self-aware and capable of abstract thinking. When captured from the wild, they are ripped violently and traumatically from their social units. Once in captivity, it is almost impossible for them to maintain a family group, which is a tragedy for these highly intelligent creatures.