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Avoid the Smiling Dolphin

Think that smiling dolphin is happy to see you? Think again. If you’re looking at brochures for Florida’s hundreds of dolphin tours, you and the dolphin may be better off if don’t fall for the smiley dolphin tour ads. That familiar pose is really a dolphin begging for food–something wild dolphins shouldn’t do, says Jessica R. Powell, biologist from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“It’s a very unnatural behavior,” says Powell. “You never see a wild dolphin doing this unless it’s fed or conditioned to people. It’s actually an indication of a number of problems” with how people are treating that dolphin.
That’s why the Fisheries Service voluntary guidelines for tours, Dolphin Smart, bans the begging dolphin grin pictures in ads–along with anything else that gives you the idea you’re going to be hanging out with some wild dolphins that will be thrilled to make your acquaintance. The program’s main thrust is about not disturbing the dolphins. Operators go through training, learning keep respectful 50 yards from dolphins, learn signs that they’re getting annoyed with you (they may “chuff”–a kind of angry dolphin huff–for example) and put their engines in neutral when a dolphin approaches. Plus, they have to teach the public about dolphins.

But teaching tourists dolphin etiquitte is a hard in market where hundreds of tours compete for tourists. Powell recently counted 107 outfits doing tours just on the west coast of Florida from Tampa south. For 66, dolphins are their primary business. The task isn’t made any easier by all the programs to “swim with dolphins.”

What tourists may not realize is that the dolphins in pictures smiling, dancing or hauling adults around are captive and trained. And those interactions greatly stress them, behavioral biologist Toni Frohoff has found. Frohoff, director of research at TerraMar Research and Trans-Species Institute of Learning has found that people overestimate their ability to read dolphins.

“An open jaw display might look like a laugh,” she writes in Dolphin Mysteries. “but to the trained observer, this conveys agitation or aggression.” Plus, they may have been caught in places like Taiji, where dolphins are also slaughtered, as The Cove showed.

Even though the ads are just a small part of the program, they’re the biggest reason tour guides say no, Powell says. To display the Dolphin Smart sticker, the tour companies can’t show or describe people touching, swimming or communicating with dolphins–or dolphins begging. “Typical dolphin begging behavior generally entails an animal that approaches people in a begging pose, with its head fully out of the water,” the guidelines say.

Powell hopes to expand the Dolphin Smart program, which started with four Florida tour groups in the Keys in 2007, to a broader area.Preliminary research shows both the dolphins and the Dolphin Smart tours doing better. Meanwhile, before the program spreads, watch out for that smiling dolphin. It may be a sign that either the operator isn’t treating dolphins right or that they’re overpromising what you’ll see. Either way, something to avoid.

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