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July 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Touch Me Not! Leave the Dolphins Alone

from the July, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Those who have seen the 2009 Academy Award winning documentary The Cove know about the abuses endured by dolphins captured for swim-with-dolphin programs. But how should we relate to wild dolphins we encounter while diving?

While diving outside Tiputa Pass in Rangiroa, I heard the familiar clicking sound and saw three adult bottlenose dolphins and a juvenile diving down toward my group, then swimming away. A 9-foot female trailing behind lingered, hovering vertically, like a dog wanting to be petted. As excited divers started to stroke her, some even trying to hug her, she closed her eyes. Was it ecstasy? After a long moment, she had her fill and swam away. I have had many encounters with friendly wild dolphins before, but I had never witnessed anything like this.

In the following days, she returned and displayed similar behavior. I discovered she had a reputation with the locals. Alain, the owner of a local pension, who dives regularly with Six Passengers, another shop in Rangiroa, told me that she is known there as 'Touch Me.' At Te Mao, a tapas bar I visited one evening, the owner postulated that she had been rejected by her pod and was now seeking human affection.

A billboard I came across when cycling one afternoon past the Tiputa pass outlook provided the most cogent explanation. Touching or taming dolphins has been prohibited in the Polynesian Marine Mammal Sanctuary since 2002. It warned "Frequent contact with humans disrupts social ties that bind these wild dolphins. They become dependent and vulnerable..." This could lead to "the increase [in] pushy or aggressive behavior... [that] may cause accidents (percussion, biting), and lead to the necessity of removing individuals who are considered 'dangerous.'" It was not clear what the process of 'removing' a dolphin entailed. Is 'Touch Me' fated to find out?

The billboard also cautioned that diseases could be transmitted from humans to dolphins and vice versa. Lobomycosis, a chronic fungal skin condition with no known cure, could be contracted from touching an animal. A grisly image of an afflicted leg underscored the point.

This is not entirely scaremongering. In a medical journal article, John S. Reif of Colorado State University contends that while transmission of the Lacazia loboi fungus from dolphin to human may be rare, there have been documented instances. Dolphin encounters are great for business, so I should not have been surprised that neither the prohibition on nor the dangers of physical contact with these creatures ever came up in any of Top Dive's briefings.

- DTV]

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