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How Fucking Stupid Is It to Give Birth in the Water with Dolphins?

A marine biologist told us it's pretty fucking stupid. But not for the reason you might think.

by Mike Pearl
04 September 2015, 4:00am

Screengrab via Channel 4's documentary Katie Piper's Extraordinary Births

You know what's not a good idea? Going into the water with dolphins and having a baby. It doesn't take a genius to know that dolphins are wild animals who play by their own rules. Even if they're sometimes friendly you probably shouldn't pop out a snack-sized human right in front of one, even if there's only a one in a million chance of your baby actually being eaten. Birth with dolphins seemed dumb two years ago when stories circulated about someone trying it, and it seems dumb today.

But this week, the UK's Channel 4 aired a documentary that involved some people in Hawaii who thought it was a good idea. It was called Katie Piper's Extraordinary Births, and at the end the couple who wanted to try it let us all down by bailing at the last minute and having an annoyingly ordinary birth in a beach hut, so we never got to see whether dolphin birth worked out or not.Extraordinary Births did, however, feature some archive footage of someone giving birth right next to an apparently friendly-looking bottlenose, and that seemed to go OK.

Just to make sure this is a stupid thing to do, we asked wildlife behavioral biologist and cetacean scientist Toni Frohoff, PhD. She helped us understand exactly what the problem is with dolphin midwifery, and also helped us wrap our heads around why it might seem like a good idea to begin with.

VICE: How stupid is it to give birth while swimming with dolphins?
Toni Frohoff: Any interaction with a wild animal has its dangers. Dolphins aren't serial killers, as they're portrayed on some blogs, but when under duress or stress incidents have occurred. I happened to do the first study on captive swim programs with dolphins. That then led to looking at the impacts of dolphins in the wild from humans and boaters. That's why I started specializing in human-dolphin interaction. I found that most of what people thought was human-dolphin communication was actually human-dolphin miscommunication. That's typically what occurs prior to people being quote-unquote attacked by a dolphin.

Right, but don't dolphins present even more of a danger than other animals?
Definitely in captivity. There's a clear and present danger to any person in the water with a dolphin in captivity because they've been under so much stress from the captive environment that it's not unusual for people to be hurt by the dolphins. It's not because the dolphins are mean, or even aggressive, but that they've been acutely, if not chronically, traumatized by institutional captivity.

Would they take a bite out of a baby?
I don't think they'd take a bite—they can bite. Do you know if they were bottlenose dolphins?

I don't know. The woman in the documentary was swimming off the coast of Hawaii.
Typically spinner dolphins are off the coast of Hawaii if they're wild—I shouldn't say "wild"—if they're free-ranging. All dolphins are wild dolphins. No dolphins have been domesticated. I even have to stop myself from saying "wild dolphins" because even those in captivity that are well-trained are not domesticated.

They also showed footage of a woman giving birth with a bottlenose dolphin hanging around.
I think it would be immensely unlikely that those would be free-ranging bottlenose dolphins. It makes me suspect that they're in a facility. Sometimes people go through centers that are not in concrete pools, but they're penned facilities that are in the sea. So sometimes the footage looks like people are spending time with wild dolphins.

Are spinner dolphins more or less dangerous than bottlenose?
With spinner dolphins, incidents of them being aggressive typically don't occur as often as with bottlenose dolphins. I haven't seen an exact comparison, but my suspicion is that spinner dolphins are more gentle with each other than bottlenose dolphins, let alone with humans.

I've seen videos online of dolphins seemingly forcing themselves on people sexually. Is that a danger here?
There is an association between sexual activity, and physically forceful activity among dolphins in captivity when they're with humans. There is that connection between sex, violence, and people being injured. That's another situation that you don't find when we're in the water, studying dolphins in healthy social units.

Any idea why people would want to do this?
Dolphins are being sought after because they have "healing potential."

Do they really?
I don't know of any peer-reviewed science that suggests that. Dr. Lori Marino, who is a neuroscientist, covers that.

But is it accurate when one of the people in the documentary said hanging out with dolphins triggers the release of oxytocin?
So does petting a horse or a dog, or a cat! I would not deny that oxytocin is produced.

How did people even get the idea that dolphins have these powers?
Dolphins do have echolocation, which can detect pregnancy in other animals, including humans. It's an incredible feat compared to what mere humans can do. But that doesn't imply that the baby incurs any benefit. I'm not saying it's a parlor trick. It might provide a cool sensation, and if the woman is experiencing oxytocin, and the baby is, that's a pleasurable activity. But there are legal implications.

Can you tell me more about those legal implications?
Many people are so excited about dolphins that they don't pause long enough to study and consider the harm they may be imposing on the dolphins and their own families. This is part of the reason that there is something called the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a federal act that prohibits the disturbance of dolphins, by boats or people, whenever possible.

What would you say to these people if they were right in front of you?
I would say, "What about the dolphin babies?" These dolphins are already challenged with ecological contaminants from human-related activity. They're barraged with it on a daily basis. Just because a few dolphins may be friendly with us does not mean that our going into their environment is OK, let alone not harmful to the whole pod—including mothers and their babies.

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