Dolphin Programs: How to Navigate the Waters


Given their intelligence and seeming friendliness, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins have been popular attractions at oceanfront resorts throughout the U.S. and Caribbean for decades. Planners booking these resorts have been happy to oblige as attendees and their families signed up to “swim with the dolphins.” Scheduled on the meeting’s “free day,” dolphin shows have typically been high on the list of options, often ahead of snorkeling, beach volleyball and paddleboard yoga, not to mention just laying by the pool.

But a shift has occurred the past few years that at first might have been subtle, but at this point is unmistakable. As more companies and associations have raised their environmental consciousness—an agenda that includes aquatic conservation—planners are paying more attention.

For their part, resorts are taking more proactive steps to ensure that the health and welfare of the warm-blooded marine mammals dolphins in their care is their first order of business. Dolphin shows may still be offered, but the emphasis has shifted from entertainment (that activists charge is exploitation) to education.

Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys runs one such program, favoring education and interaction over command performances. Its Dolphin Connection program takes place in an ocean-fed saltwater lagoon. Programming choices include a “trainer for a day” option, where attendees shadow accredited professionals in working hands-on with the animals. One current educational focus: learning how pollution is negatively affecting dolphins’ ability to breed.

For groups where environmental concerns run deep, planners will want to review these six considerations before including dolphin programs at their meetings:

  • Experts say less emphasis on the animals performing is considered to be better for their long-term wellbeing.
  • An ocean-fed lagoon containing such natural elements as fish and plant life is a more preferable habitat than a man-made tank.
  • Dolphins fare better if they’ve been born and raised in captivity, rather than captured in the wild and then having to adjust to their new circumstances. Hawks Cay’s Dolphin Connection has a strong track record in this regard, having raised nine dolphin calves from birth.
  • While dolphins are considered very friendly overall, those that have been relocated from the wild have been known to act erratically, even aggressively, if they feel threatened by too much human contact.
  • Like any optional recreational event, it’s the planner’s job to make sure attendees understand the resort’s requirements and that these rules are obeyed. For “in the water” dolphin programs, for example, there are age and height requirements. Pregnant women are also not allowed to participate.
  • Dolphin events have been so popular over the years because they’re both fun and memorable. Before signing on though, it’s wise to ensure that the resort’s program you’re considering is truly best in class.

Photos: Cover photo from Dolphin Connection photo courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort




Bruce Serlen

Bruce Serlen

Bruce Serlen is a veteran travel writer, based in New Jersey, who has written extensively on meetings management and hotel operations. Most recently, he was executive editor at Hotel Business.

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