Dolphin Assisted Therapy

Does it work? Is there a danger? What's wrong with DAT?

Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) has seemingly become the latest fad in alternative medicine. It most commonly takes place at marine parks and dolphinariums where people pay hundreds of dollars for a few hours to swim with dolphins. Some facilities have week long programs that cost thousands of dollars.

Most people come looking for a magical connection and a once-in-a-lifetime swim with dolphins, but some come looking for a miracle cure for whatever ailes them. Autistic children, children with down-syndrome, people with cronic pain, cancer paitents, and countless others flock to facilities offering DAT in hopes that dolphins will offer them a miracle. People of all ages and sizes come to swim with dolphins thinking that they will be medically cured... However, the evidence seems to suggest that DAT is nothing more than false pretense. What's more, dolphin assisted therapy can not only be dangerous, but one day, it could be deadly.

Does DAT work? What does it do?

For quite a few years now, there have been stories of people with diseases and illnesses that went swimming with dolphins and were "cured." Is this proof or false hope? It wasn't until recently that actual studies were done on the effects of swimming with dolphins.

One of the groups that is most dedicated to proving DAT as a medical treatment is the AquaThought Foundation. They have used brainwave monitering systems to record the effects of swimming with dolphins. The data that they have collected has shown that after swimming with dolphins, the human brain is very relaxed. However, they have admitted that this effect is similar, if not identical, to interaction with domestic animals, such as dogs or cats, or simply taking a warm bath. That brings up the question of "why would anyone pay thousands of dollars to get the effect of a warm bath?" The simple answer - people are looking for a miracle cure and others are looking to profit from them.

Some of the most remarkable stories come from parents of children with down-syndrome or autism who took their child to swim with dolphins and he or she was miracally cured of their disability. However, statistics have shown that only approximatly 30% of child DAT patients actually show any improvement, whether it was mild or dramatic and very seldom did the effects last longer than a few days. Even more dramatic studies have shown that human interaction programs and positive reinforcement methods are far more successful, with as much as a 65% success rate. So why would parents choose a week long program for thousands of dollars over other programs with better success rates? Because the parents are victims of false pretense (or false promises).

Often, people with no medical or scientific backgrounds will promote a "healing swim with dolphins." These same people will often aggressively defend their practice. They will send out glossy brochures that offer "hope for the hopeless" and yet, fail to provide evidence for their claims. One of the most well known facilities with swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs, as well as one of the most notorious reputations for "stretching the truth" is the Dolphin Reasearch Center in south Florida. The DRC has a self-proclaimed "doctor" (with no medical history) who offers week-long DAT programs to ill people for $2,500. Anyone with an illness, from a headache to cancer, can participate in this program. Several complaints have been filed to the USDA by families who took out mortgages on their homes in hopes that they or a family member would be cured, only to find out that there is no guarantee or refunds available for DAT.

There have been some who have seen progress in children with disabilities and people with cronic pain, but there is no evidence to show that swimming with dolphins actually caused their incredible recovery. Further, there is more evidence to show that other programs could have been far more successful, or in some cases, the cause of their recovery.

Is DAT offering hope to the hopeless? In my opinion, yes, but it is only false hope.

Could DAT be dangerous, even deadly?

Most people envision dolphins as the cute, friendly and lovable "Flipper" who rescues drowning people, plays happily in the vast ocean and is everybody's best friend. However, the reality is that dolphins are large, powerful and often very agressive animals, just as capable of inflicting harm on humans as a lion.

Since the first dolphins were captured by P.T. Barnum in the late 1800's, dolphins in captivity have almost regularly attacked people resulting in countless injuries and even death. Thankfully, so far none of the public has been killed by a dolphin. However, with the increasing popularity of swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs, this statistic is not likely to stay that way for long.

Dolphins in the wild are naturally aggressive. Dolphins have been recorded commiting homicide, infanticide and gangs of male dolphins have been recorded attacking and "raping" females. The bottlenosed dolphin pod off Scotland known as the Moray Firth frequently murder smaller harbor porpoises and even infant dolphins. Evey year, approximatly 15 harbor porpoises and 5 infant bottlenosed dolphins wash up dead. This behaviour is not limited to this area alone. Dolphins kill dolphins all the time and scientists now accept this as normal behaviour. What happens when humans interact with dolphins, especially forced interactions such as the ones that take place in captivity? People get hurt.

Here are some injury reports from swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs in the US:

Dolphin Quest, dated March 8, 1993:

The report was written from the point of view that the swimmer's apparent nervousness excused a tooth rake inflicted by the dolphin. However, it was the responsibility of the facility personnel to ensure swimmer safety. The staff observed this young man's inappropriate behavior and body movements ("fidgeting") and yet they allowed him to participate in the session. In my opinion, this was an inappropriate response on the part of the personnel.

Theater of the Sea, dated November 17, 1992:

The report describes the swimmer receiving a bruised sternum in an interaction that facility personnel did not witness completely (the injurious contact occurred underwater). According to press stories, the injury was more severe (a cracked sternum). The swimmer insisted he did nothing to encourage the dolphin's action (butting him with its snout). The facility claimed he grabbed the dolphin's dorsal fin inappropriately. The swimmer filed a legal action against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

Dolphins Plus, Inc., dated March 1 and 9, 1992:

There appears to be considerable confusion as to what actually happened here; there is an unacceptable lack of correspondence amongst the varying reports from various facility personnel and the swimmer. While underwater, a dolphin impacted the swimmer's face, resulting in a shattered face mask which caused facial lacerations and a bruised nose. In general, it must be pointed out that in order to break the glass on a face mask, considerable force had to have been involved. Yet the report described it as "some sort of bump." If in fact a collision with the dolphin was responsible, especially a head-on collision, then it was almost certainly intentional. It is extremely improbable that a dolphin could collide head-on with a person, with sufficient force to break glass, accidentally. It must be kept in mind that dolphins are very precise in their perceptions and accurate in their movements when underwater.

The second incident also resulted in a broken face mask. The report states that the staff could not have anticipated such an event. However, the "group swim" during which the incident occurred, as described (several swimmers swimming together to create a pressure wave that the dolphins swim in), is a high-energy activity; any animal involved in such an activity could easily become inappropriately excited (imagine running at high-speed alongside a large dog).

Dolphin Quest, dated February 16, 1992:

Again, the injured swimmer verbally expressed nervousness prior to the incident. This swimmer should have been counseled not to continue. The injury was a minor laceration, but the point here is that these animals DO sense nervousness and may become agitated or aggressive in the presence of a nervous swimmer. It is also of note that the swimmer expressed a sense of responsibility for the incident, which was reported as if that excused the injurious contact (i.e. the participant was to blame so the facility was exonerated). Another interpretation could be that the program misled her to believe that any negative interaction must be the swimmer's fault. Swimmers in these programs want desperately to believe that the dolphins are gentle and kind; they do not want to believe that the animals could purposefully harm them. It is not surprising that they assume the blame for any negative interaction, but it is disturbing that the facility personnel may encourage them in this misapprehension. In addition, a lack of control over swimmer conduct is in general a fundamental flaw in the safety design of these programs.

Dolphin Research Center, dated March 5, 1990:

This incident is the most troublesome of all. In my expert opinion, this was not an accidental contact. The dolphin was reported as swimming between two swimmers, twisting to avoid the sudden movements made by both swimmers (again, the implication being that the swimmers were at fault for making such movements so close to the dolphin), and "accidentally" bumping into them hard enough to break one swimmer's arm and the other's rib. It is completely unlikely that a dolphin could fracture a rib and break an arm by accident. Again, it would be unlikely for a dolphin to accidentally "bump into" people in the first place; to do so with sufficient force to break bones would almost certainly have to be deliberate.

The swimmers refused immediate medical treatment and indicated that treatment in fact was not necessary at all. This almost certainly indicates SHOCK. They were, after all, suffering from broken bones! It is extremely disturbing that the facility staff did not examine the victims sufficiently to determine this on site and insist on immediate transport to a hospital. Presumably the staff are trained in first aid. Only after the swim was complete did facility personnel insist on taking the swimmers to the hospital, where the broken bones were diagnosed.

Finally, the staff person responsible for writing a summary of the incident showed a disturbing lack of understanding of dolphin behavior and "psychology." The dolphin was described as immediately breaking off the contact and looking "sheepish," which the staffer reported as indicating the contact was not "intentional." On the contrary, the dolphin would INDEED have looked "sheepish" and not returned to the victims if the contact had been deliberate. The reason: The dolphin would hardly have expected the degree of negative reaction it received from its actions (victims crying out, doubling over, etc.); it would have been expecting a dolphin's response, which would have been negligible (dolphins having thicker skin and a blubber layer to protect them from the "minor" blows of a companion, which are exchanged frequently under normal circumstances).

These are relatively old records and these were some of the few incidents where reports were filed. The safety of swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs is very unsure. Although most facilities take as many precautions as possible to ensure the safty of their visitors, injury is still common and some measures do not go far enough.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) first approved facilities for the use of dolphins for public interactions (swim-with-the-dolphin) in 1985. Since then, the NMFS no longer has authority over captive dolphin facilities and swim-with-the-dolphin programs. That authority was handed over to the over burdened portion of the USDA called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Recently, in April 1999, authority over swim-with-the-dolphin programs was completely taken away. Now, there is nothing regulating human/dolphin interaction, which will likely lead to more injuries.

Here is the APHIS press release over swim-with-the-dolphin programs:


WASHINGTON, April 1, 1999--The U.S. Department of Agriculture is suspending the enforcement of Animal Welfare Act regulations pertaining to swim-with-the-dolphin programs.

"Last year, USDA adopted new regulations regarding swim-with-the-dolphin programs," said W. Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's animal care program, a part of USDA's marketing and regulatory programs mission area. "It has come to our attention that the language in the new regulations may be confusing to some. Therefore, we are suspending enforcement of the regulations in order to take a closer look at the language and make it more understandable."

In addition to suspending enforcement of the regulations, USDA seeks public comment on all aspects of the regulations and on all human/marine mammal interactive programs.

For more information, contact Barbara Kohn, senior staff veterinarian, AC, APHIS, 4700 River Road, Unit 84, Riverdale, Md. 20737-1236; (301) 734-7833.

Notice of this action is scheduled to appear in the April 2 Federal Register and becomes effective upon publication.

Consideration will be given to comments received on or before June 1. Please send an original and three copies to Docket No. 93-076-13, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Suite 3CO3, 4700 River Road, Unit 118, Riverdale, Md. 20737-1238.

Comments may be reviewed at USDA, Room 1141, South Building, 14th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington D.C., between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, except holidays. Persons wishing to review comments are requested to call ahead on (202) 690-2817 to facilitate entry into the comment reading room.

With the elimination of authority over dolphin interaction programs, the problem will likely only get worse. DAT has become the newest concern for public safety representatives who believe that human/dolphin interaction programs pose a real danger. Their conern is shared by many, including me.

Are dolphins potentially dangerous? Yes. Can dolphins harm humans? Yes. Could a dolphin kill a human? Yes. How long will it be before a human involved in a DAT program is fatally injured by a dolphin? Only time will tell.


Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) is now an unregulated and unchecked business that is more about money than science. There is very little evidence to support the so-called medical benefits of DAT and there is more evidence that supports the claim that DAT is nothing more than another medical miracle sham with possible dangerous consequences.

As with any alternative medical therapy, especially DAT, a very simple phrase should be kept in mind... Let the Buyer Beware.

Back to: Performers or Prisoners?


Constantine, R. and Baker, C.S. 1995.
Monitoring of commercial swim-with-dolphin
operations in the Bay of Island, New
Zealand. Page 24 in Abstracts, Tenth
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Defran, R. H. and Pryor, K. 1980. The
behaviour and training of cetaceans in
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Cetacean Behaviour: Mechanisms and

Frohoff, T.G. 1993. Behaviour of Captive
Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and Humans
During controlled In-Water Interactions.
M.S. Thesis, Texas A&M University,
College Station, TX.

Frohoff, T.G. and J.M. Packard. 1995.
Human interactions with free-ranging and
captive bottlenose dolphins. Anthrozoös

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