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Swimming With Marine Mammals. Research

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Tourists are increasingly seeking out interactions with marine mammals, including various cetacean species (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and pinnipeds (sea lions and seals). These interactions can take place in captivity, semi-captivity or in the wild. In the wild, such encounters tend to take place within the context of a scuba-diving session or, increasingly, as part of a specialist 'swim-with' boat tour. During such tours, partici­pants are usually equipped with snorkel, mask and fins, and then dropped into the water alongside the animals. Marine mammal  research tells that a number of negative impacts on the behavior and physiology of marine mammals are thought to result from these activities and, in some parts of the world, various regulations and codes of conduct have been introduced in an attempt to manage such interactions.


The desire to encounter and interact with free-ranging marine mammals is intensifying in many tourist locations around the world. The reason for this escalation in demand has yet to be fully explained by the literature. Indeed, marine mammal research on tourism motivations for diving and swimming with marine mammals in the wild is still in its infancy. However, there do seem to be a number of forces at work which instill in people a strong desire for interaction with marine mammals. Prominent among these is the social representation of marine mammals in the popular media and the tendency for tour operators to draw upon these pop­ular images in the development of new products and the marketing of tourism attractions. It is clear, nevertheless, that marine mammals are poorly understood by the public at large, with a prevalence of utilitarian attitudes towards marine mammal species and a strong predisposition to interpret their behavior anthropomorphically.

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In 2003, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) surveyed 20,000 Britons asking them to vote on the 50 things they thought people should do in their lifetime; swimming with dolphins ranked first. Cloke and Perkins in marine mammal research suggest that this is because they are subject to a range of "anticipatory knowledge and expectations" following exposure to powerful image constructions. Cetaceans, particularly dolphins, are frequently portrayed as mythical, intelligent, playful and sociable creatures which respond to human interaction. This depiction is repeated and confirmed through popular rep­resentations in art, literature and the media. It is therefore little wonder that the notion of diving and swimming with dolphins as an exhilarating and unforgettable experience is firmly embedded in the tourist psyche. Major tour operators such as Thomson have been quick to respond to tourist demands and promote swimming with dolphins as a number-one, 'must-do' tourist activity. Indeed, even the briefest survey of tour operators' holiday brochures and web sites confirms that there is no shortage of enthusiasm on the part of the tourism suppliers to respond to this groundswell in demand.

Despite this advertising hype and the growth of new opportunities to develop tourism experiences based on interacting with marine mammals, scientists maintain that the industry must ensure that marketing does not promote unrealistic expectations. In reality, satisfying tourist experiences cannot always be guaranteed. Amante-Helweg interviewed 306 people during swim-with-dolphins tours in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, and found that 53% did not actually get to swim with dolphins. This did not, however, necessarily reduce their satisfaction with the trip. Conversely, Constantine and Baker's  research on swim-with-dolphin tours in the same area found that only 60% of swim attempts with bottlenose dolphins and only 31% of swim attempts with common dolphins were actually 'successful' (success being defined as at least one dolphin being within five metres of a swimmer). The marine mammal research also found that 48% of 'sustained encounters' with dolphins lasted an average of 4.2 min, while 24% lasted an average of 5.3 min. A study by Scarpaci, Dayanathi, and Corkeron of swim-with-dolphin tourism in Port Phillip Bay, Australia, meanwhile, found an average swim time by individual swimmers of just 3 min. Even for those who do actually get to swim with dolphins, therefore, the experience can be surprisingly ephemeral. Moreover, the embodied experience of swimming in sometimes cold, choppy and deep water requires a certain level of skill and spirit of adventure which tourists can find somewhat disturbing, especially in more remote and wild locations.

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There are a number of tourism destinations which are renowned for their opportunities to encounter marine mammals. Kaikoura in New Zealand is the best example of a desti­nation that has had its existence transformed through marine mammal tourism based on a variety of cetacean species such as the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), dusky dolphin (Lagenprhynchus obscurus), Hector's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) and New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus fosteri). Other important destinations include the Galapagos Islands, where tourists can interact in the water with Californian seal lions (Zalophus californianus); Hawaii, where there are opportunities to encounter spinner dol­phins (Stenella longirostris); Baja California in Mexico, where there are California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), common dol­phins (Delphinus delphis), grey whales (Eschrichtius ribustus), fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus); the Canary Islands, which offers encounters with dense-beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris); and the Australian Great Barrier Reef, where tourists can inter­act with dwarf minke whales (Balaenoptera bonaerensis).

While there have been quite a few marine mammal research studies which indicate how tourists benefit from these enriching close encounters there is also widespread concern about the conse­quences that these interactive tourist activities can have on marine mammals. In responding to the rapid growth in demand for diving and swim-with opportunities, operators and managers are faced with immense risks as "the subsequent impacts of these current levels of interaction with marine wildlife species remain unknown". Even tourists themselves indicate a concern for the impacts of diving and swimming with marine mammals associated with inappropriate behavior on the part of tour providers and tourists, particularly those who try to chase or otherwise harass marine mammals.

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There is no doubt that marine mammals, and particularly dolphins, have a widespread contemporary appeal among tourists. Why this is should be so remains a moot point. However, the fascination humans clearly hold for marine mammals has turned into a rapidly expanding, worldwide tourist activity, with a proliferation of opportunities to swim with wild cetacean populations throughout the world. While the intrusion of tourists into vulnerable marine settings has the potential to cause distur­bance and long-term impacts on marine mammal populations, there is little doubt that the activity provides profound psychological benefits for tourists.

Firstly, close encounters with marine mammals have the ability to enhance tourist satisfaction and generate feelings or exhilaration caused by "the thrills and excitement of the moment" set in the "peace and tranquility of nature". In certain situations, encounters with marine mammals have the ability to exceed all expectations. For example, Valentine et al. in  marine mammal research found a positive correlation between the closeness of a mink whale and the rating of overall satisfaction given that a high number of tourists did not expect to ever experience being so close to whales. This ren­dered the experience a 'once in a lifetime opportunity.

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Intrinsically motivated encounters with wild animals have long been recognised as a trigger for a heightened human experience. DeMares and Krycka found that respondents who had had a significant encounter with a whale or dolphin described emo­tions attributed to the notion of a 'peak experience', first espoused by Maslow, in which they describe feelings of connectedness to self and life, harmony and aliveness, joy, exhilaration and excitement. This heightened state of well-being could be later remembered, re-lived and re-told in their everyday lives to help overcome or alleviate the tedium and disappointments of everyday existence; to reduce stress and to provide an emotional boost. For the human participant, therefore, there is a feeling of being permanently changed or enlightened by the experience.

During an encounter with cetaceans, many humans experience an immediate reduc­tion in stress, as well as a sense of wonderment and a feeling of inner harmony and 'flow', where the awareness of self, particularly the ego, falls away and thoughts can run freely and creatively. Cloke and Perkins refer to this cetacean-triggered peak experience as a "trophy moment" brought about "by the luminal and imaginative encounter" where the place becomes the stage and the cetaceans and the swimmer, the performance. Narratives depicting how tourists experienced swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura varied according to age, gender and adventurous, but Cloke and Perkins found that accounts were consistently very emotional. The participatory practice of swimming with cetaceans, rather than merely observing them, allows an active, embodied experi­ence and a close, relational and spiritual encounter with an 'animal-other' which blurs the human-nonhuman divide in a "gleeful co-haunting whereby a spontaneous play­fulness and corporeal connectivity transmutes the tourist experience into something more cosmic and spiritually instinctive". This is espe­cially the case where eye contact is made or where the dolphin initiates the contact. DeMares and Krycka explain that it is eye contact which determines 'connectedness' in the dolphin encounter as "one finds connection with another being when one sees oneself reflected in the other being's eyes".

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Other marine mammal researchers have identified the human need to be part of nature as an impor­tant determinant of the demand for close-up wildlife encounters. As economic and social 'progress' had led us to lead lifestyles that are more urbanized and less directly connected to nature, so such needs have become increas­ingly unmet in our daily lives. Wildlife tourism, therefore, represents a means by which such needs can be satisfied. This perspective, sometimes known as the 'biophilia hypothesis'  argues that humans have an inescapable need for contact with nature, although whether this need is innate to humans or learned through human experience remains a matter of some dispute.

Finally, an increasingly important theme in marine mammal research into the motivations for humans to seek interactions with wildlife is that of affiliation with animals.

 Marine mammal research has tended to focus mainly on the human desire for companionship that is often achieved through us keeping pets, there being notable psychological ben­efits to such relationships in the form of decreased levels of depression, decreased stress levels, reduced feelings of loneliness, and so on. It can be argued that such benefits can also be captured through interaction with wild animals. Other studies suggest that humans tend to be attracted to particular kinds of animals, particularly those that have a similar physiol­ogy to humans; appear to behave in human-like ways; hold aesthetic appeal in terms of color, movement, shape and texture (the 'cute-and-cuddly' factor); and/or are rare or endangered (emphasizing the unusual nature of such species, as well the degree of sym­pathy humans can feel for remaining members). Species that are strong in such attrib­utes are sometimes known as 'charismatic mega fauna' and the various species of marine mammal would certainly appear to match these criteria very well. A study by Woods ranked dolphins second in a list of young Australians' favorite animals. Whales ranked 10th most favorite while seals were 21st on the list. The domestic dog was ranked number one.

Marine mammal research into the human dimension of swimming and interacting with cetaceans is still in its infancy. However, the limited number of studies already conducted suggests that the dynamics of the encounter become a cherished life experience, ranked in the mind of the human participant as among life's most memorable experiences.

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