By Christina M. Russo Throngs of Americans are heading south to the Caribbean right now, for the balmy sunshine, intoxicating evening breeze, turquoise waters … and the opportunity to swim with dolphins. But despite their popularity, swim-with-the-dolphin programs have a dark underbelly, and those on the inside are starting to speak out against them.

Courtney Vail/WDC

Swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) programs can be found all over the world, but they've become exceptionally popular in the Caribbean in the past decade or so. A former dolphin trainer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Dodo that these programs are inherently problematic — and cetaceans simply do not belong in captivity.
"Dolphins are beautiful and amazing creatures in their natural habitat," says the former trainer, who requested anonymity because he still works in the Caribbean hotel industry. "But stick them in a cage, and you watch them change."

One trainer's story

Born and raised in the Bahamas, the trainer says he was employed at two swim-with-the-dolphin facilities in the Caribbean, and his concerns grew over his tenure. The dolphins' holding pens were not only excessively shallow, but also far too small. At one facility, he says, more than 40 dolphins were caged in three compact cells.
In the open sea pens — as opposed to enclosed pools within a resort — debris like nails and fish hooks would float in from the ocean, he adds.
"Because they didn't have a vet or any type of veterinary care at [this particular] facility, the dolphins would swallow things, and there would be nothing you could do about it," he says. Though he witnessed the enclosed pens being cleaned, he claims the smell of the chlorine was so strong, it would "choke" the trainers — and that some of the animals eventually went blind because of its use.
He also maintains that many of the dolphins suffered from "psychosis," a behavior not unheard of in marine mammals forced to swim in small pens all day long. They were also under extreme pressure to perform, which may have made them dangerous to humans, he says: "They did 10 interactions a day … the same motions, the same speech, the same signals over and over. They would get frustrated ... and aggressive to guests or knock food buckets out of our hands."