"We want our audiences to feel like they’re a part of the ocean, swimming right alongside the dolphins, but we don’t want to encourage everyone to jump in the water with a wild dolphin," says the film’s producer and director, Greg MacGillivray. Not only can that be a dangerous practice (you wouldn’t pursue a wild bear or a gorilla, would you?), but in the United States and some other countries, it is also an illegal one. Swimming with, harassing, even feeding wild dolphins is against U.S. Federal Law according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Human interaction with dolphins may change dolphins’ natural behavior in ways that put them at increased risk of injury or death. Studies have shown that increased exposure to humans and human activities is correlated with greater risk of dolphins’ incidental interactions with vessels and fishing activities and ingestion of inappropriate or contaminated food items. In addition, feeding dolphins may affect their ability or willingness to forage for food, particularly among the young who must learn this behavior to survive. There have been reports in the southeastern United States that some dolphins have become "nuisance animals" or aggressive panhandlers. Many people have been injured by dolphins begging for food.
For the most part, people have good intentions. They are charmed by dolphins and want to be near them. The problem, however, is that most of us don’t know how to behave around dolphins. Entering the ocean is akin to visiting another country or culture. There are codes of etiquette you best understand. Reaching your hand toward an untrained dolphin, for example, or even swimming directly at one is aggressive behavior. Scientists like Kathleen Dudzinski, featured in the film, use oblique angles when swimming toward dolphins and they respect these limb-less creatures by not reaching out to touch them nor ever chasing them. Afterall, doing anything interpreted as aggressive by a wild animal that is six to eight feet long, weighs more than 500 pounds and swims and kicks faster than you’ve ever dreamed, is dangerous.
The Executive Producer of the film, Chris Palmer of the National Wildlife Federation, concurs, "Dolphins, as wild animals, are unpredictable. Television shows like Flipper, and stories of people being rescued from drowning by dolphins, have given people a wrong impression that all dolphins are approachable, friendly and curious about people. As a result, many people have been injured, some severely, when trying to interact with them in the wild."
JoJo, a bottlenose dolphin that appears in Dolphins with Dean Bernal, was once a "nuisance" dolphin. His curiosity toward people and their activities created problems for the local resort owners, who had to answer to injured guests. When dolphin specialists were called in to assess the situation, they discovered that it was the people who were to blame, not JoJo. They were reaching out to touch JoJo, sticking fingers in his blowhole, or trying to grab on to his dorsal fin for a ride. Bernal, who over several years befriended the dolphin, was appointed JoJo’s warden. The relationship between Bernal and JoJo is not only rare, it’s the only one like it in the world. Highly social animals, dolphins far prefer the company of their own kind. No one knows why JoJo is a loner and seeks human companionship.
The scientists featured in Dolphins have special permission to swim with and study dolphins in the wild. In the United States scientists must pursue a rigorous permit process to prove that the benefits of their work outweigh the risks to the dolphins.
In other parts of the world, whale watching and swim-with-dolphin programs are sprouting up rapidly. In 1995, it grew to a $500 billion dollar industry. These programs are here to stay, and in fact, are actually doing some good. In some countries historically known for their ill-treatment of cetaceans, these ecological tours are not only helping their economy, but are also raising awareness among the public about the value of dolphins and a healthy ocean environment. Dudzinski, who has been a shipboard naturalist in the Bahamas and Japan where swimming with dolphins is still legal, believes that it is imperative for tour guides, boat operators and the participating public to learn about dolphins, including proper etiquette. She says, "When we’re in the ocean, we’re in their home. We have to remember that."