Caroline Joyner on 15 November 2023

Over the past 10 years (or more) the travel industry has begun a journey of awareness about the ethics of animal attractions. However, back in 2010 I had been backpacking around Central America and ended my trip at a hotel next door to Dolphin Discovery. Wandering into this attraction one day was a defining moment for me on my responsible travel journey.

A solitary sealion crunches his body into a ball to fit into the tiny patch of shade in his wire-fenced compound. He has around 15 square metres of water, but he is about 1.5m long and likes to swim. No wonder he looks so miserable. He stares enviously at a pelican sitting on the fence, perhaps wondering what freedom would feel like. Dolphin Discovery is a sea life attraction on Isla Mujeres, just off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. A holiday paradise of white sand beaches, lush jungle, Mayan ruins and wildlife. The state of Quintana Roo currently has 19 facilities which house captive sea life.

As I walk around the attraction, I am immediately struck by how tiny these pools are compared to the miles of ocean the inhabitants would normally enjoy. This 1500-metre enclosure houses pools for manatees, rays, nurse sharks, and dolphins. Hundreds of metres of wire fencing, double and triple thick makes sure that the animals have no hope of ever tasting the freedom of the open ocean which is always ironically but a few metres away from them.

Suddenly, a Butlins-esq loudspeaker instructs the 2.15 group to “get ready". One of the pools is now jam-packed with mostly American tourists. At 2.30 a group of ten Americans amble down the wooden boardwalk and then down the steps into the dolphin pool, and the young trainers bring out cool boxes of fish. In return for fish, the dolphins dutifully begin their acrobatic display -somersaulting, backflipping and jumping to the cheers of the crowds. After “shaking hands” with tourists in the water, two tourists are given a signal to grab hold of the dolphin’s dorsal fin. The dolphin then begins to pull the men through the water. The tourists are smiling, over the moon with their “once in a lifetime experience” after having been repeatedly told that “Dolphins are naturally inquisitive animals who enjoy interacting with you”. Each tourist in turn gets to manhandle the dolphins whilst the resident photographer snaps away. Holding their flippers, touching their noses, cradling the dolphins fully in their arms and even using the them as surfboards. After each encounter the dolphins are rewarded with fish.

The lone sea lion looks on from behind his wire-fenced enclosure, swaying in desperation to get someone’s attention for food.

Every day over 1000 tourists are shipped in by boat from the mainland to “play” with the dolphins, sea lions and manatees here. I wonder if any single one of these tourists has contemplated how these wild animals have been persuaded to perform multiple times daily to the backdrop of Vegas-style loud music and let tourists manhandle them. The website says “These beloved Dolphins will approach to give you an adorable kiss, a warm hug and all their love: they are always excited to hang out with our guests and share their incredible skills and their friendly companionship.” The sad reality is that captive marine animals are trained using food deprivation. We want to believe that we are witnessing a beautiful bond between the trainer/tourist and the animal, but in fact, we are witnessing food simply being used as a form of bribery, or operant conditioning. These are not natural behaviours dolphins would repeat in the wild.

I notice that, in another pool, two beautiful, rare manatees,, swim round and round in circles in their 40 square metres of water. Earlier I saw them “kiss” tourists in turn in return for fish. Having encountered manatees in the wild, I know enough to be sure that manatees are naturally shy animals and enforced close contact with humans daily is surely something they do not relish. Alla Azovtseva, a Russian dolphin trainer of 30 years wrote: “When they are not engaged in performance or training, they just hang in the water facing down. It’s the deepest depression.” Countless other now ex-sea mammal trainers have voiced similar opinions in recent years. Before we leave, I simply have to find out more, so I begin to chat with one of the trainers. “They were all bred here”, he says, when I ask where the dolphins came from. This seems intuitively unlikely to me, and sure enough, when I press him he admits that many of them were caught from the wild. This is perhaps the moment that chills me the most.

Few visitors to Dolphinariums pause to consider how any of the animals ended up here. Of the more than 3000 captive dolphins and whales in the world, many were originally captured from the wild although many dolphinariums will somehow manage to reframe these horrific wild captures as “rescues”. Though some species have successful breeding programmes in captivity, most do not have a large enough gene pool to sustain their populations so “new blood” is still needed. Violent inhumane capture using nets is not yet a thing of the past.

Although times are changing and many countries have now banned wild capture and import/export of dolphins, “Dolphins have been – and continue to be – taken from the wild from waters around Cuba, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Solomon Islands and west Africa, to name only a few locations”. Animals are often injured or killed as the capturers struggle to subdue them and separate them from their families.

When Atlantis Dubai opened in 2008 it was reported that its 28 captive dolphins had been caught in the waters just off the Solomon Islands, and in particularly bad taste they then named their dolphin interaction pools after places in the Soloman Islands, a sad reminder of these dolphins’ former freedom.

Back in Mexico that night at my hotel, as darkness falls the security lights blare over the park. Another stark reminder to me of how far from a natural setting this actually is. The particularly poignant thing is that almost every tourist who visits these attractions is driven there by their love of wildlife, and yet they are unknowingly part of one of the biggest tragedies of the tourism industry today.

So why do tourists react so positively to witnessing marine life in captivity?

Read my next blog (coming soon!) to find out more about how this clever but misguided industry continues to survive.