Published by Michelle Kretzer.

“But I love dolphins!”

That seems to be the common objection whenever you try to talk to someone about how “swim with dolphins” programs hurt animals and explain that tourists’ money is the only thing keeping them in business. But those who truly love these animals—who have been known to care for sick or injured members of their pod—won’t fund the industry that tears them away from their family pods in the wildsentences them to a lifetime of deprivation and health problems in captivity, and fuels the annual dolphin slaughterCaptive dolphins have even been known to mutilate themselves and commit suicide.

The story is similar for those who are stuck in “petting pools.” They’re exposed to foreign bacteria and other pathogens that can make them sick, and they can become anxious, frustrated, aggressive, and even neurotic as a result of being confined to shallow tanks and forced into constant interaction with an unrelenting stream of humans. Dolphins have even lashed out and injured people in SeaWorld’s petting pools.

The good news is that there are loads of opportunities to see these intelligent, graceful animals without hurting them, such as:

Swim With Robotic Dolphins

The only kind of “swimming with dolphins” that’s acceptable is if a curious dolphin or pod approaches you—a surfer, a diver, etc.—in the open ocean or if you do it with a virtual or animatronic substitute. We love Edge Innovations’ brainchild, a life-sized, realistic robotic dolphin, for the latter. We love it so much that we gave the visionary designers, Roger Holzberg and Walt Conti, an Innovator for Animals Award.

The faux dolphin looks and swims like a real bottlenose dolphin and even reacts to human gestures. Best of all, the “robodolphin” wasn’t torn away from its mother or bred in captivity—it was designed by two animatronics experts, Holzberg and Conti. It’s “been engineered to simulate everything from the skeletal structure, to the muscular interaction with that skeletal structure, to the fat bladders and weight deposits on a real adolescent bottlenose dolphin,” said Holzberg. The team behind the high-tech invention hopes to add a functioning blowhole and mass-produce the robotic dolphin, a development that will surely have a huge impact on the marine park industry.

Hop on a Boat

Dolphins—who can call each other, not by name but by whistle—are brainy and curious, and they like to check out boats and boaters. They are also playful and will frequently race in the boat’s wake and twirl in the air, making for terrific photo opportunities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a great resource for finding a tour company that doesn’t encircle or trap dolphins and won’t drive over or through their pods, which can injure the animals. Visit its website DolphinSmart.org to find responsible, cruelty-free tours.

Rent a Kayak or Stand-Up Paddleboard

If you have small children, you can also opt for a canoe. Rental companies and tour guides will be able to tell you where the dolphin pods, sea turtles, manatees, and other wildlife like to hang out. Since these nonmotorized watercraft are quiet, you’ll likely go unnoticed—and in some places, you’re almost guaranteed to have dolphins swimming close by or even right next to you.

wild dolphins off the coast in Florida

If you can steer a paddleboard (many rental facilities offer a free beginner’s lesson), it’s the better option, as you can see directly down into the water. While paddleboarding in Florida, I often spot dolphins, turtles, crabs, and other animals, and I once had to dodge a manatee who was coming up for air inches in front of me. The most important thing to remember is to be respectful and enjoy the personal, private experience of being in their home. Remember: Never approach, pursue, scare, harass, or try to feed or grab any wildlife.

Immerse Yourself in a Crazy-Cool Virtual Reality Experience

At Encounter: Ocean Odyssey, National Geographic’s fish-free aquarium in Times Square, you can swim with whales and dolphins, snorkel in coral reefs with colorful fish, and play with seals, while the animals respond to your movements.

And at Disney theme parks, guests can ride a giant clamshell under the sea to hang out with Ariel and her friends in an enchanting virtual reality ride. As reported by NPR, many health researchers are discovering that using a virtual reality headset to swim with dolphins helps patients relax, eases their stress, and even helps with chronic pain. Conversely, there is no evidence that swimming with real dolphins helps patients (but it certainly hurts the dolphins).

Hit the Beach

Often, you can see dolphins just a few feet off the beach. Ready Set Trek offers a list of the 10 Best Places to See Dolphins in the Wild, but there are many more. A quick internet search about your travel destination will tell you the beaches and waterfront restaurants near you where people frequently see wild dolphins frolicking. In more protected areas, such as the Portuguese Azores Archipelago or Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, visitors frequently see mothers with their babies. Remember: Always respect their space, as the ocean is their home, not ours.

wild dolphins near the beach in Florida

Snorkel or Scuba Dive

For the price of a mask and some fins, you can snorkel around coral reefs and other dolphin-preferred spots all over the world. Try to go with a small group, hire a local tour guide for an hour or two, or find a sightseeing boat tour that allows snorkeling. Always do your research, though, since many tours that bill themselves as “swim with wild dolphins” encounters try to trap or corral the animals or target them when they move into shallow areas to rest and bombard them with tourists day after day. This makes it hard for the animals to get the rest that they need for a successful night of feeding and harms their health.

Take a Volunteer Vacation

Programs in numerous countries allow people to have truly unique experiences with animals by spending their vacations volunteering with them. The Ionian Dolphin Project, for instance, hires volunteers to “[t]rack and survey bottlenose dolphins in Mediterranean waters to help scientists understand and combat the main threats to them and their ecosystem.” As always, you’ll want to do your research and make sure that whichever voluntourism project that you’re considering is humane.

*****

The best part is that when you choose to see dolphins in the wild, you’re seeing healthy, happy animals living together with their families and exactly as nature intended: freely.