With many of my friends flocking to Australia in search of sunnier climes and a more relaxed pace of life, photographs started popping up in my social media newsfeeds of what, at a quick glance, looked like captive dolphin interactions, perhaps taking place at SeaWorld Gold Coast Australia. It didn’t take me long to realize my mistake; I wasn’t seeing images from captive interaction programs, but from wild ones.
Australia’s feed wild dolphin tourism industry seems to have remained under the radar for the last couple of decades, with little information out there assessing the long-term conservation and welfare impacts on both dolphins and humans. Today, there are several official locations around Australia where wild dolphins can be interacted with and fed by human hand.
Wild Dolphin Feeding Attractions
Interactions in Tin Can Bay, Queensland are organised by the Barnacles Dolphin Centre, (which appears to be a café). As a member of the public, you can turn up at set times during the day and pay around AU$10 to feed and get close to the dolphins. It all started back in the 1950s when a lone Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin stranded in front of the café. After the stranding, “locals took pity on him and started to feed him.”
Dolphins have been returning to the beach for a free meal ever since.
The history of the Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island in Queensland isn’t all that different. In the 1980s, dolphins began approaching the jetty to hunt bait fish. Fishermen started throwing them scraps and it spiralled from there. The Osborne family purchased the resort and turned the dolphin feeding into a full-blown interaction program, which tourists can participate in at a cost. The resort also has what they call an education and conservation program, through which they offer other wild animal feeding interactions.
Again, there is a similar story at the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort in Shark Bay, Western Australia. In the 1960s, fishermen began sharing their catch with visiting bottlenose dolphins. Research in Shark Bay first began in the 1980s in order to better manage the human-dolphin interaction, better regulate the dolphin feeding and boat interactions, and to gain “a window to dolphin society.” However, the Monkey Mia Research program wasn’t established until 1992. Staff from the government’s Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) now monitor the feeding, which adults are charged AU$8.50 per day to participate in. This dolphin experience program is owned by a property management company.
The Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre in Western Australia also has a similar history to the other resorts. The Centre offers shoreline dolphin interactions – again, at a price. In 2006, the Centre partnered with Murdoch University and founded a program researching the dolphins that visit Bunbury.
Feeding wild dolphins may seem like a great alternative to feeding captive dolphins. However, this practice poses risks for both the dolphins and humans, as is also the case in captivity. Here are five reasons why you should not pay to feed dolphins in the wild:
1. It Alters Dolphin Behavior
To understand how feeding wild dolphins affects their behavior, we have to understand the behavioral mechanisms behind why they perform certain behaviors and for this, we need to take a look at the behavioral concept of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning encourages or deters specific behavior through reinforcement with either a reward or punishment. For example, if a dolphin swims close to shore and is consistently given food (a positive stimulus) every time this happens, the dolphin will learn that swimming close to shore is a “pleasurable” thing to do and will keep doing it and on a more regular basis too.
Operant conditioning is used by marine parks, like SeaWorld, to train their animals; it could be said that getting animals to perform tricks is not really a matter of choice, but more like manipulation. In the words of B.F. Skinner, (who coined the term “operant conditioning”), “By discovering the causes of behavior, we can dispose of the imagined internal cause. We dispose of free will…”
Sonja Eisfeld-Pierantonio of Whale and Dolphin Conservation describes why training wild dolphins in this way poses a threat to their welfare,
“Wild dolphins conditioned to seek food from humans can become less willing to hunt for themselves and may not teach their young vital hunting skills. They learn to beg for a living, losing their fear of humans.”
The Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre’s research has found that dolphins interacting “with humans for food (i.e., ‘beggars’) are at greater risk of entanglement and boat strikes than other dolphins.” Within the last few years, one of their known dolphin beggars has been hit by a boat propeller and entangled in fishing line, on separate occasions. The fishing line was observed “digging deep into his skin and blubber,” still entangled around his tail flukes months later.
The Centre acknowledges that there are problems associated with the feeding of wild dolphins, “Research now proves that unregulated and excessive feeding of wild dolphins alters their behavior, leading to a ‘taming’ of wild animals.” Yet they still do it. They are regulated though, of course, by the Australian Department of the Environment. This is odd because the Department of the Environment seems adamant about this instruction (in italics on their website – I haven’t added that in!), “What is the basic rule when near whales and dolphins? Remain quiet and do not try to feed or touch them.”
Repeated human feeding and interaction will eventually result in the dolphins losing their fear of humans through habituation. Habituation is synonymous with altered behavior and typically leads to increased risk of injury, illness, stress and death in dolphins, as well as dangerous consequences for humans too. Despite government regulation, this industry, (as well as other forms of dolphin tourism), has a considerable impact on the dolphins. Exposure to long-term human disturbance could ultimately lead to fewer dolphins.
2. It Can Lead to the Transfer of Zoonotic Diseases
Zoonotic diseases are contagious diseases that can be transferred between humans and non-human animals, crossing the species barrier. Veterinary pathologist James Barnett explains that, “As with any human-animal interactions, there is a potential for disease transfer when humans interact with dolphins, although generally the risk is relatively low.”
Stephen Marsh, national coordinator for British Divers Marine Life Rescue in the UK, explains how zoonotic diseases are a concern for volunteer medics attending whale and dolphin strandings. “Our training courses cover the dangers of zoonotic diseases in detail and medics are encouraged to wear personal protective equipment when attending any animal in distress. Our medics all know to avoid the two most dangerous parts of a dolphin, the tail and the breath, whether the animal is fully beached or still in the water.”
Marsh recounts at least two reported incidents where people may have contracted a disease from the blow of a whale or dolphin,
“There has been at least one instance where a volunteer contracted pneumonia from a dolphin blow. In another instance a diver, who unfortunately received a breath blow directly to his face from a stranded pilot whale, ended up in hospital with meningoencephalitis very soon after, although it was uncertain whether or not this had been contracted from the whale.”
A cetacean pathogen that has caused some concern in recent years as a potential zoonosis is Brucella ceti. “It is a particular concern as several Brucella species are known to cause abortion and Brucella ceti has been associated with abortion in bottlenose dolphins,” Barnett speaks of the disease, which may spread through contamination of wounds and through inhalation of aerosols.
A factsheet from Wildlife Health Australia listing known pathogens existing in marine mammals in Australia reports that marine Brucella species are present, as well as a number of other pathogens. Barnett agrees that Brucella isn’t the only concern: “Other pathogens that may become of increasing importance as zoonoses in the future include, for example, strains of influenza.”
The Western Australian government’s advice relating to zoonosis and stranded dolphins is not dissimilar to that issued by British Divers Marine Life Rescue. They ask that members of the public “maintain a safe distance from any animals,” as they “can cause serious injuries” and “may also carry zoonotic diseases.” Both Monkey Mia and the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre fall under this jurisdiction, so why aren’t they heeding their government’s warning? And why does the government ignore its own advice in allowing these feed wild dolphin interactions to occur at all? Surely dolphins swimming freely in shallow waters are just as likely to carry zoonotic diseases; surely they are just as able – if not more so – to cause serious injury to humans?
And what about the dolphins contracting disease from humans? Marsh says, “It is relatively unknown whether we inadvertently pass zoonotic diseases to the dolphins themselves, but it is thought that with limited contact in the wild, this would be less likely than in captivity, where contact would be for a prolonged period.” With the Monkey Mia interaction programme alone bringing in more than 100,000 visitors per year, this industry only seems to be increasing human-dolphin contact in the wild.
3. It can Lead to Injury (and Death)
When dolphins lose their fear of humans and of being fed by humans, they are at greater risk of injury and death. As Eisfeld-Pierantonio details, “[They] do dangerous things like swimming too close to churning boat propellers and can be severely injured.” As well as an increased risk of entanglement in fishing lines and boat strikes, harassment by non-regulated members of the public and stress, artificially fed dolphins are also at risk of taking food from non-regulated members of the public that might make them unwell.
Researchers based at Shark Bay recognize that the dolphins will take unregulated fish from fishermen, bringing the dolphins in close proximity to fishing lines and boat propellers. And there is another concern: “Not everyone welcomes begging dolphins,” Eisfeld-Pierantonio explains, “which can make them open targets of irritated fishermen or others that see them as a nuisance.” The dolphins that visit the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre have been observed stealing bait from fishing lines and at least one dolphin has been killed by a fisherman as a result.
Humans are also at risk of injury from dolphins. Artificially fed dolphins can become pushy, aggressive or threatening if they don’t receive what they expect.
There are numerous reports of wild dolphins showing aggression towards and biting humans and in fact, research has shown that the provisioning area (where dolphins are fed) actually triggers aggression. Is this industry responsible for an incident in July 2013, where a surfer described injuries received from a dolphin? It cannot be said for certain, but this reported attack did occur along the same coastline as the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre.
NOAA Fisheries clarifies the true nature of wild dolphins, “The ‘Flipper myth’ of a friendly wild dolphin has given us the wrong idea. Flipper was actually a trained, captive dolphin who did not bite the hand that fed him.” (Although captivity also has a negative welfare impact on dolphins and sometimes captive dolphins do bite the hands that feed them, as is the nature of dolphins).
4. It Results in a Higher Dolphin Calf Mortality Rate
Calf mortality rate in female dolphins regularly provisioned with food in Australia is significantly higher than the mortality rate in calves produced by female dolphins of the same species who are not provisioned with food by humans. In other words, baby dolphins are more likely to die as a result of the feed wild dolphin industry. Even with tighter regulations, calf mortality rate is still higher in dolphins involved in these interaction programs, principally resulting from the chronic alteration of dolphin behavior.
Particularly, the change in mother-calf contact as a result of artificial feeding can impact the welfare and survival of dolphin calves born in these environments.
When in feeding areas, mothers have been observed focusing their attention on humans, which results in reduced contact between a mother and her calf. This in turn results in increased separation times between mother and calf, which can lead to a higher risk of predation.
A particularly graphic attack by a tiger shark on a female bottlenose dolphin calf, nicknamed “Hobbit”, was recorded in 1999. The attack occurred near the Monkey Mia shoreline, when Hobbit’s mother, known as “Holeyfin”, was estimated to be at least seventy-metres away from her calf. Witnesses testified that, when Holeyfin became aware of what was happening, she bolted towards Hobbit. But she was too late; Hobbit was fatally wounded. Holeyfin remained with her deceased calf, prodding and moving her for some time after the attack and in the weeks following Hobbit’s death, Holeyfin’s behavior changed.
This wasn’t a one-off occurrence either. Shark predation appears to be a common part of life, certainly for dolphins in Australian waters, and the dolphins at Monkey Mia seem to face a greater risk of predation than dolphins inhabiting other areas. Could the high food reward be the reason why these dolphins remain in this area, despite it being an area of seemingly such high risk?
An increased risk of predation as a consequence of altered mother-calf contact isn’t the only danger facing young dolphin calves born to artificially fed mothers. NOAA Fisheries in the USA note that, “Feeding wild dolphins disrupts their social groups which threatens their ability to survive in the wild. Young dolphins do not survive if their mothers compete with them for hand-outs and don’t teach them to forage.”
Other hazards for young calves also include an increased risk of fishing line entanglement, boat strike and stranding; a higher risk of contracting disease through human contact or from septic pollution; a change in patterns of other behaviors and associations; affected activity budgets and ranging; as well as a change in diet and the alteration of predator and prey species concentrations found inshore.
5. It Gives out a Conflicting Conservation Message
Feeding wild dolphins gives out a conflicting conservation message. One example has already been addressed, with governments advising on the one hand not to feed wild dolphins under any circumstances and then saying on the other hand, (the hand that seems to boost tourism and economy), that it is okay to feed wild dolphins, under certain conditions.
Like with the captivity industry, this feed wild dolphin industry claims to educate and conserve. However, as with dolphin captivity, can education and conservation through a process that chronically alters the very essence of what makes a dolphin a dolphin really be called “education” and “conservation”? Yes, some of these resorts produce scientific papers – but how valid can data obtained under such artificial conditions be? And at what cost does the science come? According to Shark Bay researchers, “The costs [to the dolphins] include distortions in behavior and life histories.”
What kind of a conservation message does economically exploiting members of a species to the extent that they may face an increased risk of injury, disease or death really give out?
This is a key argument opposing the keeping of dolphins in captivity, yet there seem to be fewer people speaking out against the feed wild dolphin industry, of which the same question can be asked.
If feeding dolphins in the wild is okay, then why is this not okay in captivity? Is a captive dolphin’s life worth more than a wild dolphin’s life? Or perhaps we are kidding ourselves that manipulating interactions with dolphins is more ethical if done in their home environment. Free-ranging dolphins can choose to swim away if they don’t want to be around humans, like captive dolphins don’t have to perform tricks if they don’t want to, right? Well, no – not if we factor in the potential for behavioral conditioning to influence free will.
The Risks Out-Weigh the Benefits
Some countries and many Australian states have concluded that the risks to the dolphins are not worth it and have subsequently banned the practice of feeding wild dolphins. However, the future of the feed wild dolphin tourism industry, where it has not been banned, appears to be tied up in how much money can be made from this dolphin use. The Shark Bay researchers confirm, “As the popularity of eco-tourism increases, so do the economic incentives of making large, social animals available for close viewing. Provisioning can often facilitate this process, and it too, is likely to become increasingly common.”
Lead image source: akeii/Flickr