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Why I Won't Go Swimming with Dolphins or Shark Cage Diving

by Jodi Lucas

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As a surfer, I have a deep love and connection to the ocean, which is why this topic is close to my heart and one that just does not get enough attention in the media.

When I was younger, diving with sharks and swimming with dolphins were big dreams of mine. But today, I’ve decided to scratch them off of my “things to do before I die” list and stick to chasing mellow waves instead. Here’s why:

The ocean is a vast and intriguing playground for most people, and is home to some of the most magnificent and unusual wildlife on the planet! To date, human beings have discovered less than five percent of the ocean, which means that there is so much left to be learned from exploring the mysteries of the deep blue sea (movie reference intended).

This is the reason why I love being a part of Cape Town’s surf community. Not only is it a fun way to stay fit, but learning how to surf is a great way to reconnect with nature and learn how to protect and preserve it for future generations. There is no shortage of information about the human impact on wildlife in terms of pollution, but there is another side of the story that is hardly ever told…

The Truth about (most) Wildlife Attractions

Ever since the dawn of modern films by the likes of Free Willey, Dolphin Tale, Flipper and even Jaws, the idea of swimming with dolphins or diving with sharks has thrilled adventure travelers and has rapidly become one of the most beloved tourist attractions of many seaside destinations. As good as these attractions are for the economy and for marine life education, there are a few concerns that come with this practice.
The boom of the travel industry has opened the floodgates for numerous wildlife exploitation programs that go under the disguise of being “rehabilitation” centers, but the truth of the matter is that more than half of these centers are not equipped with providing the basic needs that these animals require. While the negative impact of attractions such as riding elephants has been heavily exposed in the media, the exploitation of marine wildlife has gone mostly unnoticed. We often forget that, as more of the world’s coastlines become highly developed, human beings and marine life are beginning to share the same waters.

Here’s how wildlife tourism impacts the animals:

Visiting a marine park or aquarium
dolphins with basket balls

Swimming with dolphins is a standard feature on many travelers bucket-lists and it has even made its way into therapy treatments for children and adults with developmental, physical, and emotional conditions, but there is a cost that comes with these practices.

Marine parks are often at the top of the ‘child-friendly” list of attractions in any given destination. In fact, some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting the dolphin aquarium. The stands around the pool would be packed with tourists and local families who had paid a “fair” amount of money to watch the friendly dolphins do all kinds of tricks and dives in the water. It was fun for us and we all assumed that these highly intelligent animals were having just as much fun, but sadly, this is not always the case.

The truth of the matter is that many of these animals are being captured from the wild to supply the growing demand for dolphin encounters, and are forced to live in artificial, confined conditions, away from their natural family groups. 

Wild dolphins are constantly on the go and can travel up to 128 kilometers (80 miles) a day, while their captured counterparts only have ponds or water bodies, which they cannot leave unless their holders decide otherwise. Sounds like a prison, doesn’t it? This confined state has also caused a few differences in the behavior of the captive dolphins (due to boredom and depression) and physical appearance, such as collapsed fins.

Shark cage diving
shark cage diving

South Africa has one of the best scuba diving scenes in the world and is also home to many shark cage diving attractions. As an adventure enthusiast, I can totally see the appeal in getting up close and personal with one of nature’s most legendary apex predators, but there are a few pros and cons to that should be considered before diving into the deep.

Let’s start with the bright side. Generally speaking, sharks have quite a bad reputation (thank you, Jaws) and are often considered to be cold-blooded killers. This fear often leads to the unnecessary slaughter of these keystone species that help keep the ocean’s natural predator-to-prey cycle in check.

This is where shark cage diving comes in. The main aim of this attraction is to show people that sharks are generally quite relaxed animals and would rather go about their day keeping the natural order of the ocean than feast on human flesh. We aren’t as tasty as we might like to think and humans don’t form part of their natural diet at all. Why do sharks attack people? Well, they are curious and sometimes confused or scared by our weird limbs flailing around in their territory.

Although shark tourism and ecotourism tend to go hand in hand, there have been growing concerns about how responsible it actually is. In most cases, the sharks are baited into coming closer to the boats to give tourists a better view of the animals and there are a few dangers to this practice. Some studies have found that chumming the water can lead to competition and over time, larger sharks will dominate the feeding areas. Imagine having to fight a pro boxer over your daily meal? Doesn’t sound too fun, now does it?

Another drawback to this practice is that it can condition the predators to approach all boats and stop the sharks from following their natural feeding habits. While the idea of having sharks become used to humans is useful in terms of learning more about them, it also increases the risk of injury and changes behavior patterns of the sharks, where they have been seen to beg for food instead of following their natural instinct. If you want to try shark cage diving, just make sure that the tour operator is not chumming the water or falsely baiting the  the sharks in any way.

How can you help?

video from JacuzziSurfer

The good news is that, whether you’re a beginner surfer, a pro or just enjoy being around the ocean, there is plenty that you can do to help protect our marine life. Non-profit organizations such as 4Ocean bring people together in an effort to make the world’s beaches cleaner and safer for marine life, but it doesn’t just stop there. The next time you find yourself strolling along the beach, make it a goal to collect any plastic and recycle it because every little bit of effort counts.

So, where does this leave us in terms of marine wildlife attractions? Well, in my opinion, if you love them then leave them wild. If you happen to naturally encounter dolphins while on a marine safari in South Africa, then great! But, always be considerate of their home.

No matter where you stand on the matter, it is always important to do your research into the operators you travel with. 

We ensure that all of our tours are eco-friendly and leave a minimal footprint behind. So, paddle out there and head on an affordable surf camp! Who knows, you might just find yourself sharing a wave with a dolphin.

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