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Keywords:

  • bottlenose dolphin;
  • social behavior;
  • human-dolphin interactions;
  • swim-with-dolphin

Abstract

The behavior of dolphins in four Swim-With-Dolphin programs was compared by type of Swim encounter, defined by the presence (“Controlled“) or absence (“Not-Controlled“) of explicit trainer regulation of interactions between dolphins and human swimmers. Dolphin-swimmer interactions involving aggressive, submissive, or sexual behavior were designated as “high-risk” in the Swim context; sexual behavior was included as high-risk based on analyses that demonstrated co-occurrence of sexual and agonistic behaviors. High-risk activity comprised a substantial proportion of dolphin-swimmer social activity during Not-Controlled Swims. In contrast, high-risk activity rarely occurred during Controlled Swims, even though agonistic and sexual behaviors were normal components of the same dolphins’ free-time social repertoire. These results indicated that direct trainer control of dolphin-swimmer interactions virtually eliminated high-risk activity from the Swim context, and thereby diminished the potential for dolphin distress, swimmer injury, and rejection of dolphins from Swim programs due to swimmer injury. This study illustrates effective use of quantitative behavioral sampling techniques for evaluation of captive management concerns and promotes broader use of these techniques for a better understanding of cetacean behavior.