Meeting wild dolphins


Yvon Godefroid
What to do if a dolphin is willingly approaching you ?




Dear Yvon

I think that the law proposed by NMFS is important.
I did spend six month on a bay in Hawaii where dolphins come to rest, feed and play with their babies. I saw the people going to them, sometimes 10 sometimes 200. The quantity of people cannot be absorbed.

The dolphins often where swimming away trying to find their peace. They had a reason to stay for hours in the bay. Apparently now the consequence is that they come in for shorter periods of time which means that they spend more time in the open sea which means that they don’t have enough time for rest.

It’s not about the single person that goes out to the dolphins, it’s about the quantity of people around the planet that want to satisfy in this way their love for dolphins. If everybody who wants the dolphins goes out there we will soon not have the dolphins any more. Let’s be more visionary and less selfish.

They don’t need us at all, they are millions of years older than we are. If we love them we have leave them where they are and try to do whatever we can to protect their species and their environment.

Avec mes meilleures salutations

Noëlle Delaquis

Whale-watching made popular in recent years, perhaps too much so, is now often criticised today for the damage it causes around wild cetaceans.

It would be fair to say that they have been put to many uses since the 70’s – dolphin-healers being the acme of commercial exploitation – and we can therefore only be thankful to the Scientists and Friends of Cetaceans for the vigilance they exert today in controlling the tourists who head every summer for Whale Country !

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society  has published guidelines (a swim policy) for whale watching as well as various reports under the titles ‘The Potential of Whale Watching in Europe, in Africa, in the Caribbean’ etc. which are available on request.

The French association SOS Grand Bleu has also put forward some interesting propositions with regard to sanctuaries for cetaceans in the Ligurian sea, and a ‘Whale-watching Charter’ which is remarkably well-documented.

Within the context of these reflections, one awkward problem often raises its head: is swimming with dolphins in the wild ethically acceptable? Doesn’t it bother them ? Are we violating their living space in an intrusive way?

There are many ecological associations who travel to the sea to meet marine mammals but resolutely refuse to get into the water with them.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society for example, strongly condemns this kind of practice and one can understand their reasoning when today « swimming with the dolphins » has become a kind of collective madness in some parts of the world, more and more damaging to the ‘spinner dolphins’ of Hawaii, for example.

These reserves fall moreover, within the measures recommended by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and are controlled, more or less happily, by the National Marine Fisheries Services.
These restrictions, modified in 1994, essentially control the protection of wild dolphins against « harassment » caused by swimming tourists and stipulate that no-one may approach a dolphin from less than 50 yards away.
The problem with the rules of the National Marine Fisheries Services, is that they cannot be properly applied in practice. The imposed distance of a minimum of 50 yards between the dolphin and visiting human is without doubt a good thing, but what can be done if the dolphin infringes this limit itself and comes to join you on its own initiative ?

Chase it away ? Or run away ?
It is this last option that the NMFS recommends.




At Gulfworld, just in front of the sea : it’s allowed to feed, touch and disturb dolphins…but for money !

The Dolphin as a Person

Can we really talk of ‘wild dolphins’?
These beings gifted with language and reasoning who, in so many ways rub shoulders with humans daily: with their boats, their pollution; can they really be regarded as on the same level as the Bengal tiger or an okapi, whom most certainly, have no desire to interact with us?

The American authorities, as well as the large international associations for the defence of cetaceans, however, continue to view them as such, and it is because of that, no doubt, that all the difficulties and controversy arise over swimming with dolphins.
For this term ‘wild’ is also pejorative, outdated and dangerous such as the term ‘primitive’ when applied to humans.
Who is wild at the end of the day ? Who isn’t ?

We know that cetaceans have at their disposal a large array of diverse cultures, that their daily life obeys social rules, that they use sonic noises remarkably akin to language and that generally their behaviour is, like ours, relatively predictable when one knows them well.

It is striking to note that all the accidents that have happened to swimmers, all the ‘attacks’ by dolphins, are in fact the result of serious human error. The lack of knowledge about signs of irritation or a signal that the animal will become aggressive is extremely dangerous and can lead to tragic misunderstandings.
However, taking into account what we do know about their cognitive facilities, it is logical that the dolphins sometimes wish to know who we are and what we resemble.



Out of the water, their purely ocular and lateral vision does not allow for perspective or relief, nor can it distinguish between red or green or presumably other colours like the hominoid. The world of air is completely flat !

Under water, however, because of sonar, we are given a concrete form, solid and tangible so they can scan us at their leisure, observe our lungs and our various hollow ventricles (heart, brain, bladder) and very clearly detect the structure of our skeleton.

This time we are in their world, their environment, and our gestures quite rightly are a gauge of our confidence which they understand perfectly. In addition, with this head to head contact the relationship to which our two species are disposed, due no doubt to a time when humans behaved like them, is profoundly strengthened.

Many activists were born through this kind of contact. Bill Rossiter, one of the beacons in the defence of dolphins in the U.S.A. became one after having a long and very emotional contact with a beached sperm whale. Wade Doak was deliberately approached by dolphins and not the reverse. Horace Dobbs also entered into the pro-dolphin fight after repeated swims with the ambassador dolphin Donald.

Ric O’Barry saw a captive female dolphin die in his arms and has never forgotten it. Alan Cooper first of all swam with Fungie, the ambassador dolphin of Eire. Doug Cartlidge, Executive Director of the European Cetacean Organisation, felt compelled to hand in his notice as a dolphin-trainer after having swum with a wild dolphin etc.
For our part, we have often been able to observe that given the choice between fish, which the Americans still hand out to them publicly at Panama City Beach, and the games which we offer to them in such circumstances – with an underwater electric scooter – the dolphins immediately choose to follow us and ignore the food.
Therefore, as Wade Doak confirms, the attraction of novelty and the pleasure of meeting others exists as much for them as us.

The Ideal Meeting

The ‘ideal’ encounter could be described thus:

You embark on a boat and you head into an area that is supposed to be where there are dolphins’ tribes by chance, for it is almost impossible to determine in advance the movements of these whimsical travellers. The boat lets down anchor and you swim, you wait, rest, sunbathe, when all of a sudden the fins emerge and they get closer : the natives of the ocean leave their clearing and come to observe their strange visitors from land.


When the encounter interests them – they no doubt observe the behaviour of the people on board (their eyesight out of the water has proved to be precise enough for that), they keep to the back of the boat, rostrum closed, and wait patiently for you to open your hands!

THEY choose the duration and intensity of the interaction and it is THEY who choose to leave when they get tired of the game.
For more on this subject read the wonderful account by Wade Doak in his book ‘Dolphin Encounters’. It appears that the pod delegates some ‘ambassadors’ while the rest of the group lives, on the whole, further out in the open sea, sheltered from these visits. The biggest danger is feeding of course, because this destroys the natural feeding habits of the dolphins, causes a breakdown in their social structure and causes gastric problems and other afflictions. The less scrupulous organisers of dolphin-tours have no compunction in hunting down dolphins and encircling them, thereby forcing them into the middle of their tourists, who are in the water wearing fluorescent rubber rings.

It is obvious that times have changed since the good times of Wade Doak. The rare and precious interactions within an immense empty sea, have given way to a real circus.
Who today respects the dolphins’ signals and their peace and quiet?
Who understands their behaviour, their daily timetable, the reasons behind their movements or their hunting places? Among those who ‘swim with the dolphins’ to puff up their egos or to purify their transcendental souls, who really cares if the dolphins are happy?

The Interlock Teams

The encounters nowadays are the acts of private people, repeated on a whim over several decades, the results of which are not recorded for scientific posterity so any knowledge gained is lost.

Absolutely no effort has been undertaken, for example, by an official research organisation, to continue the exchanges, however remarkable, that Wade and Jane Doak had with Rampal. No-one has continued the research of Vladimir Markov on the language of the Black Sea dolphins either.

However, it is obvious that if we went further into the research we would tumble into a world with the strangest culture, completely alien to our own. We would have to admit once and for all that the cetaceans are undeniably the other ‘great intelligence’ which exists on this planet. There is no doubt that linguistics, psychology, and a number of other cognitive sciences would be bowled over by the discoveries that we would make, in the same way as the arrival of knowledge from the Arabs following the Crusades lead us straight into the Renaissance.

It is therefore time today to take up these contacts in a more serious way, and consign them to specialist teams.

These could be numerous and spread out over the four corners of the world. Their mission would consist of carrying out systematic research – which would not put a stop to magical encounters – transmittable into reliable scientific data according to an extremely rigorous set of protocols and data collection.
This data would be mainly sounds emitted when showing dolphins simply drawn images which fascinate them, and would enable the quick creation of a data base of common whistles.
It would be necessary of course for these encounters to take place in calm, well-
protected areas and carried out over long periods of time.


The members of these teams would be specially trained in cetology and in cetacean behaviour. They would also be called on to do census missions but would spend most of their holiday time (if they were eco-volunteers) in gathering the maximum of information during their encounters in the middle of the ocean.
Everywhere else taking to the waters with dolphins would be prohibited or at least rigorously restricted. Only kayaks, sail boats and other craft without engines would be authorised to circulate in the sanctuaries intended for the dolphins.


That said, in developing this ‘tourist capital’ the coastal areas which the dolphins frequent have started to make a profit – New Zealand is the most striking example of this and it protects its cetacean localities all the better for it. Controls on clandestine feeding are enforced and ‘marine sanctuaries’ have been created along the coasts to allow the dolphins a bit of peace.

This needs to be emphasised : whale watching and dolphin watching has had a remarkably positive impact on the economies of the poorest countries.
In other words, if all the natural reserves in the world were confined to the care of local populations, the latter would certainly no longer have any reason to exhaust their new resources but would see, on the contrary, their standard of living increase in one fell swoop.

When some exceptional Japanese fishermen, for example, realised that a living whale that could be photographed would give them a hundred times more than a dead whale which they could cut up, they immediately gave up the hunt and today guide tourist boats. When the fishermen on the island of Sein, in Brittany, saw Atlantic Tursiops arriving from the ocean several years ago, they were in no doubt that soon visitors would flock there in numbers, and that the shops and restaurants of the island would fall over themselves to greet them. Needless to say these fishermen love their dear
dolphins today and greet them every morning on leaving the port !

It is to be regretted, but it is a fact: only Profit runs today’s world, this modern Babylon. The power of money against the power of money, the profitable business of whale watching undeniably bars the route of the more destructive appetites of the large fishing industrialists or coastal developers!

So to conclude and return to the specific case of our friends the dolphins, ‘dolphin watching’ is the most worthwhile alternative to the horrors of the dolphinarium, for unlike that barbaric practice, it opens the doors of the mysterious dolphin world to the public at large.
The more that these dolphin holidays develop across the world, and the less expensive they become, the less the dolphin industrialists will be tempted to open new prisons for cetaceans…

But it is clear that this new cohabitation of human-dolphin, which still needs to be defined in advantageous terms for everyone, must be based first and foremost on a better understanding and deeper respect for the dolphins’ way of life in the wild.

If you absolutely need to meet dolphins in the wild, why not to help them in the same time ?
Please see adresses below.

Two adresses and a book : 





La Baleine libre

Dolphins in Normandie (France)

SOS Grand Bleu

Tethys Research Institute

Whales & Dolphins

Wales and Dolphins :
the ultimate guide to marine mammals 

Ecrit par Mark Carwardine, Eric Hoyt , R.Ewan Fordyce et Peter Gill.
Editions Harper Collins (UK)
First published in 1998.  


Meeting wild dolphins

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