Dolphin “Encounter” in Belize: What do YOU think?

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My final day in Belize finds me on a dive boat to Spanish Lookout Caye, where I’ve been invited to inspect the country’s first Dolphin Encounter program (en route, I film this questionable cruise ship garbage dump). The four Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins were born in captivity in Roatán, Honduras, and were shipped here along with their human trainers.

There is no doubt that these animals, who live in a four-acre lagoon of natural mangrove and ocean habitat, are well taken care of and that their captors are extremely sensitive to their health and well being. The “encounter” with cruise ship passengers and day trippers from the cayes is tightly controlled; this is not a free-for-all “swim with dolphins” program and every touch, photo op, and trick is choreographed to keep things safe and familiar for the animals. What’s more, the joy in the humans’ faces is matched only by the apparent smile on the dolphins’, as well as their excited chatter which, to human ears, certainly sounds happy.

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The program was not created without controversy, however. Given that these particular animals are treated so well, the argument breaks down into whether or not you believe in the concept of captive dolphins. Should these four be set free? If you are against captive dolphins, then must you also be against any captive animal, including zoo animals and house pets?

I’m not sure, but I can’t stop thinking of the dolphins in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series who, along with mice, are the only creatures smarter than humans. As they flee the Earth before the planet is destroyed they sing:

Dolphins: [singing] So long, and thanks for all the fish / So sad that it should come to this / We tried to warn you all, but, oh, dear / You may not share our intellect / Which might explain your disrespect / For all the natural wonders that grow around you / So long, so long, and thanks for all the fish!

Dolphins: [singing] The world’s about to be destroyed / There’s no point getting all annoyed / Lie back and let the planet dissolve around you / Despite those nets of tuna fleets / We thought that most of you were sweet / Especially tiny tots and your pregnant women / So long, so long, so long, so long, so long! So long, so long, so long, so long, so long! So long, so long, and thanks for all the fish!

Dolphin: [singing] If I had just one last wish / I would like a tasty fish!

Dolphin: [singing] If we could just change one thing / We would all have learnt to sing!

Dolphins: [singing] Come one and all / Man and mammal / Side by side / In life’s great gene pool!

Dolphins: [singing] So long, so long, so long, so long, so long / So long, so long, so long, so long / So long, so long and thanks for all the fish!

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