10 Great Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Swim with Dolphins in Cancun

If you are wondering why you shouldn’t swim with dolphins in Cancun, in this post we will share all the good reasons why swimming with dolphins kept in captivity is never a good idea (and not only in Cancun of course)

But we will also share a great alternative to swimming with the beautiful dolphins in their natural environment which is much more fun for you and for them.

Cancun has several swims with dolphin programs. It is impossible to look at different tours in Cancun without seeing advertisements for a swim with dolphin tours, often filled with pictures of seemingly happy dolphins as tourists give them kisses, take a ride on them, or watch them perform tricks.

These businesses advertise their programs as educational, and family-friendly, and even go as far as to say that they promote conservation efforts.

However, if you are an animal lover, you are probably questioning whether these programs are really ethical. In recent years, we have learned so much about dolphins and now know that dolphins in captivity suffer emotional and physical distress.

If you or someone you know is trying to decide if you should swim with dolphins in Cancun on your next vacation, keep reading to learn the truth about swim with dolphin programs in Cancun (or anywhere else in the world, really) and why you should not support them. 

In recent years, the truth behind these programs has come to the surface- these highly profitable businesses come at the expense of the dolphins’ health and well-being.

While advertisements make swimming with dolphins seem like an activity that both humans and dolphins can enjoy, we now know better. Keep reading to learn why you should not swim with dolphins in Cancun.  

woman kissing a dolphin one of the reasons Why You Shouldn't Swim with Dolphins

Why you shouldn’t swim with dolphins in Cancun

Swim with Dolphin programs attract customers by saying that these programs are educational and beneficial to dolphins. Advertisements make it seem that everyone involved is having a good time and that dolphins even benefit from living in captivity.

The reality is, these businesses take advantage of people’s love and fascination with dolphins to make huge profits- prioritizing financial gain over dolphin well-being. Unknowing customers spend their money to have dolphin encounters under the belief that these animals are happy and healthy.

In recent years, biologists have been studying dolphins in captivity and found numerous ways in which these animals suffer. 

If you are considering swimming with dolphins- or have even paid to participate in these programs in the past- do not feel bad.

These programs have misled countless people in the past, but you now have the information necessary to make an informed decision about swimming with dolphins and spend your money on tours that truly promote conservation and education. 

Why Swimming With Dolphins Is Bad: the Negative Effects of Captivity on Dolphins

One of the first steps in understanding why swimming with dolphins in captivity is bad is to understand the drastic differences in dolphins’ lives in captivity versus the wild.

Aquariums and shows began using dolphins in the 1960s and 1970s and by the 1990s many programs offered swim with dolphin experiences.

Up until this point, much of our knowledge of dolphins came from studying dolphins in captivity. In fact, in 2009 only ⅓ of dolphin studies involved dolphins in the wild. During this time, many people began to question the welfare of dolphins living in captivity.

Today scientists are working hard to study dolphins in their natural environments. This paints us a better picture of these smart and socially complex animals. We can now clearly see the difference in the way dolphins live in the wild versus in captivity.

The Royal Society for Protection of Cruelty to Animals is an Australian organization that works to establish policies on animal welfare. In their report “The Welfare of Dolphins in Captivity” they outline the major differences and issues with keeping dolphins in tanks. 

Why You Shouldn't Swim with Dolphins in Cancun because they must swim freely in the ocean like in this picture.
Dolphins swim freely in the Ocean as it should be

1. Not Enough Space

One of the first, and most obvious problems with keeping dolphins in captivity is the limited amount of space they can move in.

Housing areas for dolphins are expensive to maintain, and even the biggest cages are not big enough to allow dolphins to move freely.

In the wild, dolphins spend around 38% of their time traveling and can travel up to 100km a day! No cage is big enough to allow dolphins to move in this way. 

2. Food hunting is more than a basic need for food

Trainers use food to reward dolphins in captivity for performing for audiences. Likewise, they often withhold food from dolphins when they do not behave or perform.

In the wild, dolphins spend about 19% of their time hunting and foraging for food. They must dive deep, swim in fast intervals, and even make alliances with other dolphins in order to successfully hunt.

For dolphins, these activities represent more than just the basic need for food- for this intelligent animal, this is a stimulating and rewarding activity.

Being thrown frozen fish from trainers as a reward does not allow dolphins to move their bodies in the normal way they would hunt, nor does it challenge and stimulate them. 

3. Complex Social Interactions 

One of the things that most draw us to dolphins is their intelligence and complex social interactions. We know that dolphins travel in pods and have sophisticated ways to communicate with each other.

Dolphins in captivity are often traded between facilities. This is done to prevent inbreeding, and the result is that dolphins are constantly forced to interact with other dolphins who they do not know.

This can result in dangerous situations for the dolphins because they can get into fights with each other. 

The Impact of Tourism on Dolphins’ Health and Behavior

We can clearly see that dolphins in captivity live a much different life than those in the wild. Proponents of having dolphins in captivity will often make arguments that dolphins in captivity have a better life than those in the wild.

They claim that dolphins in captivity never have to struggle to find food and are cared for by trained professionals.

Despite these claims, new research is showing that dolphins in captivity suffer from diseases that dolphins in the wild do not, and the stress and unnatural living conditions they endure in captivity affect their behavior. 

Man interactive with a dolphin
“A study called “Tattoo skin disease as an indicator of health and environment quality in captive dolphins” that was presented at the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals found that captive dolphins are more likely to have tattoo skin disease than those in the wild” because they are more exposed to the sun while unnaturally playing with humans.

4. Health Problems that affect captive dolphins 

There are many factors of living in captivity that cause health problems for dolphins that dolphins living in nature do not have.

A study called “Tattoo skin disease as an indicator of health and environment quality in captive dolphins” that was presented at the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals found that captive dolphins are more likely to have tattoo skin disease than those in the wild.

In the wild, the disease was only found in small endemically infected communities of dolphins, but it is common in all aquariums and dolphinariums in the world.

This disease causes black or grey patterns on dolphin skin and can cause skin lesions.

Researchers believe that there are several different reasons captive dolphins suffer from tattoo skin disease including stress due to living in captivity, overcrowding in tanks, pool chemicals, and excessive sun exposure. 

Unfortunately, tattoo skin disease is not the only skin problem that dolphins in captivity face. Dolphins in captivity are in danger of developing skin cancer.

The Dolphin Project’s vet, Dr. Luca Giovagnoli explains that skin cancer in captive dolphins is due to prolonged exposure to sun, stress, and the presence of heavy metals and algae in the tank water.

These environmental factors do not affect dolphins in the wild, who can dive deep to escape the sun.

Even with environmental pollution, dolphins in the wild are not exposed to the same amount of heavy metals as those in captivity. Dr. Giovagnoli explains that stress due to living in captivity paired with poor living conditions makes skin cancer and other skin issues a problem for many dolphins living in captivity. 

In the wild, dolphins constantly move and diving and sun-related skin conditions are unheard of. In captivity, trainers and veterinarians are constantly treating dolphins for ulcers, skin conditions, and injuries. Many dolphins are injured in their tanks or by other dolphins in the tank. 

Free dolphins swimming
Free dolphins swimming

5. Dolphins in captivity behave differently than those in the wild

The stressful and unnatural conditions dolphins endure in captivity not only affect their physical health- it also affects their emotional well-being and behavior.

Researchers have noticed that captive dolphins often display behavior that wild dolphins do not. The World Animal Protection Organization reports that captive dolphins are known to grind their teeth, bob their heads, and swim in circles. 

Dolphins in the wild make sounds to identify themselves from other dolphins and communicate. They are known to make a “victory squeal” when they catch their next meal and identify themselves to other dolphins with a unique whistle.

Dolphins are known to display complex emotions, which they express through motion and noise. Dolphins in captivity live in cramped tanks where they cannot properly communicate with others and express themselves.

Another form of stress they experience in captivity is that dolphin shows often have loudspeakers and music playing. This is stressful for the dolphins and inhibits communication. 

6. Shorter Life Expectancy

The combination of physical and emotional stresses on dolphins in captivity has horrible consequences for them. Researchers tell us that dolphins in the wild usually live into their 40s or 50s, but dolphins who live in captivity die much younger.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reports that 80% of captive dolphins die by age 20, with many of them dying by age 10. 

There are many reasons dolphins in captivity die younger than those in the wild. In Mexico, government records show dolphins have died from septic shock, heart attacks, chronic stress, and antibiotic toxicity.

There are even reports worldwide of dolphins choking to death on objects that have fallen or been thrown into their tanks. 

Ethical considerations surrounding the use of dolphins for entertainment

Learning about the poor health and well-being of dolphins in captivity should be enough to convince most animal lovers not to support swim-with-dolphin programs.

Unfortunately, the problems with dolphin programs go far beyond the health of dolphins in captivity. 

Dolphinariums and aquariums need to acquire their dolphins from somewhere. In recent years, many countries have begun to pass laws prohibiting the live capture of dolphins and breeding in captivity; however, these practices will continue as long as people buy tickets to see dolphins. 

Instructors with dolphins
The stressful and unnatural conditions dolphins endure in captivity not only affect their physical health- it also affects their emotional well-being and behavior.

7. Live captures 

Despite companies saying otherwise, worldwide live dolphin captures are still taking place. These horribly violent and traumatic events take place to keep dolphinariums filled with dolphins with genetically diverse dolphins.

Whether legal or not, this will continue to happen as long as dolphin shows are allowed to operate.

8. Captive Breeding Programs

Many “swim with dolphin” businesses are quick to point out that all of their dolphins were born in captivity. They claim that these dolphins would not be able to survive in the wild and need to be kept in captivity.

These claims take attention away from the realities of captive breeding. Female dolphins are forcibly impregnated and the RSPCA reports that around ⅓ of all newly born dolphins in captivity die

In nature, mother dolphins teach their young to dive deep depths to improve respiratory function. The tanks that dolphins live in are not deep enough for mothers to teach this behavior.

In nature, dolphins stay with their mothers for 3 to 6 years. Dolphins born in captivity are separated very young from their mothers.

Dolphin trainers report that this separation is often violent, with several trainers needing to restrain the mother dolphin from her young. Both dolphins are visibly stressed and suffer due to this practice. 

Of all the dolphin species, bottlenose dolphins are the most common to be held in captivity. In the wild, this species is not considered endangered, so there is no environmental justification for captive breeding in order to replenish wild populations.

Dolphins breed in captivity and are done so for the sole purpose of learning to perform for human entertainment. 

Dolphins enclosed in a tank
Dolphins enclosed in a tank

9. Environmental impact of dolphin tanks

The poor treatment of dolphins and the suffering they endure in captivity is not the only ethical reason to not support swim with dolphin programs. Dolphin pens that are located in the ocean create environmental problems for the areas near them.

Thomas J. Gordaeu of the Global Coral Reef Alliance studied the impact of dolphin cages on the surrounding reef in Cozumel.

In his article Dolphin Enclosures and Algae Distributions at Chankanaab, Cozumel: Observations and Recommendations he reports that the area surrounding the dolphin cages in Chankanaab, Cozumel has excessive algae growth that is overtaking coral growth.

In addition to the excess algae, the water has a large concentration of cyanobacteria which is usually found near sewage inputs.

The bars to the dolphin cages are covered in lyngbya algae, and the water direction suggests that this bacteria and algae growth is due to the dolphin poop and uneaten frozen fish found in the dolphin pens.

Not only do the dolphins have to live in these unsanitary conditions, but the water quality affects the coral reefs near them. 

10. Safety concerns 

Living in captivity is stressful for dolphins. It disrupts their natural resting, feeding, and socializing. On top of the negative consequences for dolphins, they are often injured during the “swim with dolphins” experience.

It is common for dolphins to get kicked by guests when in the water with dolphins.

Trainers report needing to constantly remind nervous dolphin swim participants to stop kicking the dolphins. 

Captive dolphins also often injure each other. Whether it is because of the small tanks or the frustration they feel needed to perform for humans, dolphins often hurt each other, resulting in scars and bruising. 

The dangers of dolphins mistaking humans for prey or exhibiting aggressive behavior

Swim with Dolphin businesses want you to believe that these activities are safe. However, the fact remains that dolphins are wild animals and there have been several incidences of humans being bitten, hit by tails, and pulled underwater by dolphins.

This has resulted in skin abrasions, broken bones, and other injuries to the participants.

The nature of this activity- forcing wild animals to perform and interact all day with humans- is bound to frustrate the dolphins and create a dangerous situation for everyone involved. 

woman playing with a dolphin
Dolphins in captivity are often traded between facilities. This is done to prevent inbreeding, and the result is that dolphins are constantly forced to interact with other dolphins who they do not know.

Why does this happen?

Despite what dolphinariums tell you, dolphins in captivity are not domesticated. They are still wild animals and have instincts and exhibit behaviors we do not fully understand.

They can become aggressive towards humans when they are stressed and can lash out in fear or frustration when humans enter their space to swim with them. 

Another instance when dolphins can become aggressive with humans is when they mistake them for a food source. Dolphins may confuse humans who are swimming near them for fish and hit them with their tails or beaks, causing injury to the person.

Dolphins in captivity, as well as wild dolphins who live in areas frequented by tourists, are accustomed to receiving food from humans. They grow so accustomed to the food that they become “career beggars” and can become pushy and aggressive when they do not receive food from humans.

They believe that if they perform they should be rewarded with food and if this does not happen, they get confused and frustrated. 

What about Orcas?

Orcas (killer whales) are in the same family as dolphins. Orcas and dolphins both have teeth, rounded heads and beaks, streamlined bodies, and an organ called a melon.

The melon is a fatty deposit on their foreheads that helps with echolocation. In addition to their physical similarities- of course, the orca is much bigger- they also act very similar.

Both animals are highly intelligent, travel in sophisticated social groups, are playful, and are organized hunters. Just like dolphins, orcas have been captured and held in captivity since the 1960s. 

In captivity, orcas have suffered, being forced to live in tiny enclosures, with orcas that are not from their social group, and exploited to perform for humans.

Just like dolphins, orcas become stressed and frustrated due to their horrible living conditions and unfortunately have been known to attack their trainers.

The documentary Black Fish documents the life of the orca Tilikum which has been linked to three human deaths.

The documentary makes the argument that the trauma of being captured and separated from his family at just 2 years old left him crazy and aggressive.

The most famous incident with Tilkium was when he pulled his trainer Dawn Brancheau into the pool, mangling her body, and eventually drowned her.

SeaWorld officially claimed that the incident happened due to ‘trainer error’ but trainers who witnessed the event claimed that the orca knew exactly what he was doing.

Another fatal orca attack happened in 2009 when orca Keto attacked his trainer Alexis Martinez.  

These tragedies happen because orcas are wild animals who have no business living in captivity and performing for humans. To date, there are no recorded incidents of orcas in the wild attacking and killing human beings.

Unfortunately, it took these violent attacks to raise awareness of the cruelty of having orcas living in tanks. 

Alternative ways to experience dolphins in their natural habitat

It can be very upsetting to realize the truth about swimming with dolphin programs. Many participants are animal lovers and do not realize the harm they are causing dolphins by participating.

Thankfully, there are other ways you can see dolphins in that natural habitat that do not cause them harm.

There are many destinations worldwide where dolphins are known to hang out. Places such as Hawaii, French Polynesia, the Bahamas, Galapagos Islands, and Socorro Islands are places where scuba divers and snorkelers routinely see dolphins.

You can read about scuba diving with dolphins in my other post.

As with any wild animal encounter, it takes a bit of luck to see dolphins in the wild- without caging them, no tour operator can guarantee you will see them. 

When scheduling dolphins seeing excursions, make sure your tour operator respects dolphins and never crowds them.

Unfortunately, there are reports of tour operators in places that have resident dolphins such as Zanzibar and Hawaii who routinely take snorkelers too close to the dolphins.

Just as in captivity, these forced encounters stress the dolphins. Dolphins then must choose between staying near humans or possibly swimming to areas where they have known predators. 

The International Dolphin Watch has created a dolphin code of conduct. This outlines the procedures that all people should follow when near dolphins in the wild.

It tells us to never chase or harass dolphins, allow curious dolphins to approach us, and never touch their blowhole. Dolphins are naturally curious and will often approach swimmers who are respectful and calm. 

When booking tours to see dolphins, make sure you ask your tour operator plenty of questions and only book with tour operators who respect dolphins. 

Dolphin in the Azores
Wild dolphin photographed in the Azores during a dolphin-watching tour

Where to see wild dolphins near Cancun 

The Caribbean Sea off the coast of Cancun and the Riviera Maya is an excellent places to see wildlife, including dolphins.

You can spot these amazing creatures cruising in the clear waters all year round, and one of the best places to see wild dolphins is the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve.

Sian Ka’an is located about two hours south of Cancun near Tulum and covers over 5,000 square kilometers of land and sea.

You can take a boat tour in Sian Ka’an with the local tour associations (cooperatives).

There is a pod of resident dolphins that these tours often see. Not only can you see dolphins on this tour, but also turtles, and a variety of birds, and you will have the chance to see the coral reef. 

As with any tour to see wildlife, the guides cannot guarantee you will see dolphins. They will do their best to take you to an area that the dolphins are known to frequent and make sure that no visitors bother or pressure the dolphins if they arrive.

Knowing that the dolphins are not pressured to engage with tourists or be bribed with food makes seeing them in their natural environment even more special. 

Dolphin swimming in Sian Kaan
Dolphin in the wild in Sian Kaan

How to help captive dolphins 

After learning the truth about swimming with dolphin programs many people feel motivated to help captive dolphins.

The number one thing you can do to help them is to not participate in their programs. They are businesses that keep running because people continue to pay money to swim with dolphins.

As consumers, our money speaks volumes and if enough people refuse to participate in these programs, they will eventually shut. Make sure you share this knowledge with family and friends who may unknowingly be supporting these practices.

If you feel motivated to do more, there are several online petitions you can sign to help lead to the end of dolphins living in captivity. Check out the Dolphin Project online and sign as many petitions as you can! 

Risso dolphin swimming in the Azores Islands
Risso Dolphin Swimming in the Azores Islands

Final Thoughts: Why you should not swim with dolphins

Humans have long been fascinated with dolphins. So, it is no wonder that Swim with Dolphin programs has capitalized on our love for these animals to make a big profit.

Unfortunately, the truth behind these programs is that dolphins living in captivity suffer physically and psychologically.

As a traveler, the best thing you can do when you go to a new area is to educate yourself about tours and excursions.

We now know that there is no place in ethical tourism for swimming with dolphin programs, and responsible travelers should show that they do not support treating dolphins this way by refusing to buy tickets to dolphin shows.

As a traveler, your voice matters, and it is time to get dolphins out of tanks. 

Adrienne diving

About the Author

Adrienne Banka is a Michigander and fell in love with diving at 16 years old. Now she is an island living dive instructor turned brewmaster, turned mom.  When she is not in the water she enjoys riding her bike and chasing after her dog and her little girl. 

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  1. Hello and thank you for your article. We are traveling to Cancun in 3 weeks for our son’s 50th birthday. He keeps telling me he is excited for me to participate in a dolphin experience he and his wife did in May. I have been uncomfortable with the idea and now I am convinced that not only will I NOT participate but neither should he. Dolphins are one of God’s beautiful creatures and they should be left to live their lives as God intended.

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