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Dolphins Are Being Hunted So Tourists Can Swim With Them

The "pretty" ones are captured — the others are killed.

<p><a href="http://www.seashepherd.org/" target="_blank">Sea Shepherd Conservation Society</a><span></span></p>

In a series of recent photographs, kids wearing masks and snorkels cling to the dorsal fins of captive dolphins. With the children hitched onto their backs, the dolphins swim back and forth in tiny sea pens, just feet away from the Pacific Ocean where they once lived.

These dolphins are being held captive at the Dolphin Base in Taiji, Japan, located less than a mile away from the notorious cove where fishermen slaughter dolphins for their meat during the annual hunt, turning the water red with their blood. To capture the dolphins, the fishermen hit metal poles attached to their boats with hammers, impairing the dolphins' sonar and creating a wall of sound that confuses and traps them.

Entire families are caught together. While most of them are killed, the few desirable dolphins - the ones who are young and look like Flipper - are sold to marine parks, dolphinariums and swim-with-the-dolphins programs around the world.

After watching their families die, the few spared dolphins are taken to the Dolphin Base, an area of makeshift sea pens constructed with buoys, rope and wooden docks. The dolphins may stay for a few weeks or few months waiting for buyers, although some are held for longer periods. Eager to make the most money out of them, the Dolphin Base forces the dolphins to provide entertainment for tourists in the meantime.

The waters of the cove during the hunt | Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

On the English version of the Dolphin Base page, the facility provides information about its "swimming with dolphins" program. For 8,500 yen (about $82), you can spend 50 minutes with the dolphins inside the sea pens, hugging or kissing them for photographs, or riding on their backs. Paying guests can also learn how to "train" dolphins with sign language and hand-feed the dolphins.

"Not only will you get to swim and interact with dolphins," the site says, "you will also learn about dolphin habitat and we ensure you that you will have an unforgettable experience."

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society currently has volunteers on the ground in Taiji, Japan, to observe the hunt for the fourteenth year, taking part in a campaign called "Operation Henaku." Captain Jessie Treverton, the Cove Guardian ground leader, has been keeping an eye on the dolphins currently being held at the Dolphin Base. "Watching the dolphins forced to perform in exchange for dead fish and people swimming with the dolphins fills us with disgust, anger and sadness," Treverton told The Dodo. "The ignorance of these people - if they only knew the horrors and abuse and suffering these dolphins go through."

According to Graham Henry, the campaign coordinator for Sea Shepherd, people probably don't know what the dolphins go through before they pay to swim with them. "I don't think the tourists are provided with information as to how the dolphins are obtained during the drive hunts and captive selection process," Henry told The Dodo. "This is just my opinion, but I really don't think the tourists are told."

To make matters worse, the dolphins live in substandard conditions at the Dolphin Base. They're kept in tiny sea pens that are about 26 feet by 26 feet, prohibiting them from traveling the long distances they're accustomed to in the open ocean. Dolphins are social creatures, but they're often kept in isolation from others, and given very little enrichment or stimulation.

"It's unnatural," Henry said. "It causes the dolphins to be depressed, frustrated and stressed."

A mother and baby bottlenose dolphin were recently captured. | Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

A few days ago, Treverton noticed new arrivals at the Dolphin Base - a mother bottlenose dolphin and her baby. "They took them from the wild and they're already trying to train them by putting an already trained dolphin in with them," said Treverton. "It's horrible to watch."

It's not just the Dolphin Base that keeps dolphins in captivity - the nearby Taiji Whale Museum also allows paying guests to visit dolphins in their sea pens, feeding them dead fish and snapping photos. Tourists can see a dolphin show, observe the dolphins in indoor tanks (including rare dolphins like Angel the albino), and even buy whale and dolphin meat in the gift shop.

Tourists feeding the dolphins at the Taiji Whale Museum | Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"The greatest action one can take to change what is happening in Taiji and other areas of the world is to not support the captive dolphin industry," Henry said. "Don't buy a ticket to aquariums, marine parks, swim with dolphin programs and any other facilities that hold captive dolphins and whales. If we can shut down the demand for captive dolphins we can shut down the supply."

To help Sea Shepherd continue to monitor Taiji, you can make a donation here. You can also visit the group's website to find out more about how you can stop the dolphin hunts, or click here to sign a petition against the hunt.