Several years ago I began swimming with spinner dolphins in a secluded bay near my home in Hawaii. The joy I found in it would make dolphins the major focus of my life and lead me to face some difficult choices.
Knowing of the shyness of spinners, I entered the water as far as possible from them. At first they stayed away from me, but curiosity overcame their caution and soon a playful rapport grew between us. Within two weeks, dozens of dolphins greeted me every day with enthusiastic whistling. We swam and played together for hours and I felt adopted by them. Once while I was swimming alone, my legs cramped painfully. Out of nowhere, dolphins rushed to protectively surround me.
Word of the friendly dolphins spread unbelievably fast, first around the island, then around the state. Within a year people from around the world were arriving.
Most people are more familiar with the bigger bottlenose dolphins which are four times larger than spinners and have a sturdy rostrum or snout they can use to defend themselves. Spinner dolphins, with long, fragile beaks like the delicate bill of a hummingbird, lack this ability. This vulnerability accounts for their shyness. For their safety, coastal spinners depend on sheltered bays where they rest and socialize. Without the refuge of these sanctuaries they become distressed and are susceptible to shark attack. Spinner dolphins are found in all tropical oceans, but because of declines in their population, they're listed as a threatened species.
At first there was enough room in the bay for dolphins and humans. But with an increasing human presence, the dolphins had too little refuge. I worried that all of us who were swimming with the dolphins were beginning to harm them. Instead of the slow swim of resting dolphins or engaging high-spirited play, the spinners slapped their tails in distress and agitation. Some swimmers, misinterpreting this, would remove their flippers and slap back. Seeing this seemingly hostile behavior, dolphins fled out to sea.
How much human imposition could these dolphins tolerate? Was the delight I experienced with dolphins affecting my desire to protect them? I concluded that people would come regardless of my presence and decided to educate people to help prevent invasive behavior. I created and distributed a brochure explaining the dolphins' needs and vulnerability, with guidelines for interaction. But, I couldn't reach everyone and not all were cooperative.
"Dolphins are very mobile and have the whole ocean," some argued. "If the dolphins don't like us, they can leave." Others rationalized that this "one time" wouldn't hurt, not realizing that their "one time" was being multiplied by dozens each week.
Months passed and I was still ambivalent. Then, I was invited to join a group that charged people a lot of money to swim with dolphins. Ignoring my protests, the group leader hired a boat and chased dolphins into the secondary bays where they retreated when overwhelmed by humans. The boat trapped over a hundred dolphins in a small cove, their frightened young huddling against the rocks. The group leader defended her actions saying; "Thousands of spinner dolphins die annually in fishing nets. People will protect only what they love and love only what they know. Bringing people to swim is to the dolphins' benefit."
This haunting experience convinced me that it was too often harmful for humans to swim with dolphins, even when they took pleasure in our presence. I sadly concluded that this included me. To think otherwise would only be fooling myself and setting an example that invited abuse. Who was to judge whose intentions were pure or how many "well-informed" people were too many? My experience led me to become involved in wildlife conservation, including the right of dolphins to not be "loved to death."
I gave up swimming with the spinners, one of the most joyful experiences I have ever known.
* Stan Butler is the director of Whales Alive, a project of Earth Island Institute, an international conservation group in San Francisco. He lives near Seattle.
An occasional column about conflicts we find ourselves facing in daily life. The Monitor invites readers to comment, suggest their own solutions, and to submit their own accounts of moral dilemmas.