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Human Dolphin Relation – A Diverse History

Updated on July 12, 2012

Ancient history and the 1800s

Pictures and other artifacts showing humans and dolphins together can be found in the Roman, Etruscan (360 BC), the Corinthian (700 BC), and even further back in the Minoan (1500 BC) culture. Many coins and seals show people riding dolphins; lots of legends talk about dolphins saving people on their back from drowning and dolphins were considered messengers of Greek gods. To a lot of Aborigine tribes in Australia and Polynesia, Dolphins are sacred.

The perception of those cetaceans has changed a lot especially during the last decades. Thankfully, considering the early display of Beluga whales by P.T. Barnum in the US. He was the first to catch Belugas, a close relative to dolphins, in 1861 and kept them in a small crate of fresh water. Since their natural habitat is seawater, they died a couple of days later. Barnum repeated this procedure a couple of times, using the shortness of survival as advertisement to get people to visit his museum as soon as possible. In many other aquariums and marine parks until the late 19th century Belugas didn’t survive more than a few days to a couple of months maximum, some of them already died during transport.


1900s and now

In the early 1960s, physician and scientist John Lilly began experimenting with dolphins. His particular interest lay in the communication between dolphins and humans, pioneering research on their brain anatomy and speech capability. He was convinced that dolphins were highly intelligent and sensitive animals with a complex language structure like humans and communication between the two species is possible. In his St. Thomas Laboratory on Virgin Islands he designed a floor plan for a flooded apartment to let people and dolphins live together. With his research he laid the foundation of protecting and recognizing dolphins as intelligent animals.

Today, those marine mammals are used for a variety of purposes. Besides the military training them to detect underwater mines and intruders, dolphin therapies for children with disabilities and conditions like autism or cerebral palsy as well as treating post traumatic stress syndromes, e.g., in veterans, are gaining popularity. Scientific proof of the effectiveness is missing so far, just like the benefit of underwater births with dolphins, which are sometimes promoted as pain free and resulting in highly intelligent children.

Swim-with Business

Swim-with businesses pop up all around the world, especially in third world countries, and tour operators promise tourists the ultimate fulfilling experience when swimming with dolphins. A study was done by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) about the increasing number of boats in Zanzibar, which chase the pods all throughout the day. If tourism keeps pushing dolphins out of their natural habitat, they will eventually leave the region and the locals are going to cut off their own resources. On Taiwan’s east coast, 33 whale and dolphin watching boats are available. To regulate the activities a little bit, the Taiwan Cetacean Society introduced a 'Whale Watching Award' in 2003; tourists can chose from eight boats, which show responsible business practice towards cetaceans. Here in Hawaii, the pioneer of an appropriate approach are 'Wild Side Specialty Tours', in cooperation with the non-profit organization 'Wild Dolphin Foundation'.

At almost every destination, there are a handful of responsible companies. Bottom line is if somebody decides to pursue the idea of swimming with those fascinating animals, they should pick such an operator, who is voluntarily adhering to minimizing effects on the animals, environmental education, and sustainability of trips. With a little bit of searching on the internet, it is not too hard to find the right tour organizer.

The 'Island Spirit'
The 'Island Spirit'
Riding the bow
Riding the bow

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