"Although some Caribbean countries have developed legislation to address these captive dolphin programs, regulations are rarely enforced, and facilities operate under the radar in most, due to the lack of capacity and oversight," Vail told The Dodo.
Ceta Base is a site that logs the capture, transport and death rates of captive dolphins around the world. At The Dodo's request, Ceta Base estimated there are some 240 dolphins - both wild-caught and captive-bred - in facilities across the Caribbean, and that most of the wild dolphins hailed from Cuba, Honduras and the Gulf of Mexico.
A dolphinarium's view
Forty of these dolphins are at Dolphin Cay, a popular facility at Atlantis, a resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Opened in 2007, Dolphin Cay is a 14-acre lagoon with "seven million gallons of natural Bahamian ocean water," says Greg Charbeneau, vice president of Marine Operations.
The first dolphins to live at Dolphin Cay were relocated from the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The transfer was well-publicized and was also the subject of a 2007 book, "The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket To Paradise."
Since Atlantis is one of the most popular facilities, The Dodo reached out for a response to welfare concerns with SWTD programs. Atlantis prioritizes the well-being of its dolphins with a team of 90 specialists and veterinarians to "ensure their safety and comfort at all times," said Charbeneau in an email to The Dodo. He also explained that dolphin programs help teach people about marine mammals and conservation, and it is one of Atlantis' passions to conserve marine life.
Atlantis is accredited by both the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and is also a member of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association, he notes.
The facility has had 16 successful dolphin births since 2007 and one dolphin mortality. Its interaction coves, says Charbeneau, are 10 feet deep.
Sam Duncombe, the director of reEarth, a Bahamian grassroots organization that was behind the closure of another SWTD facility in the Bahamas last year, disagrees with some of Charbeneau's claims. Born and raised in the area, Duncombe told The Dodo she's been fighting against the development of dolphinariums - including the Atlantis - for nearly 25 years.
"[The Katrina dolphins] were bought, not rescued," Duncombe says. "It was greenwashing in a big way." Duncombe also maintains that the cells the dolphins are in are "horrible."
"When I saw what they had built [for the dolphins], I cried," she said. "The bloody fish in the aquarium have more than [them], with corals and rocks. These dolphins just have bare white concrete pools."
In fact, Duncombe's concern about the depth of the pools is shared by scientist Naomi Rose, from AWI, who says that dolphins routinely dive to 60 feet.
Ten feet, she argues, "is far too shallow!"
All aboard: the role of the cruise ship
How did dolphinariums in the Caribbean get so popular? In short: the cruise ship. "Every proposal for a new swim-with-dolphin facility was premised on the need to meet the demand from cruise ship tourism," says Rose, who notes the trend really took off in the 2000s. Some dolphinariums, she points out, don't even have parking lots: Tourists simply debark, swim with the cetaceans, then re-board their giant boat.
Statistics gathered from the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association show there's no sign of a slow down. Its most recent report ranked the Caribbean the most popular cruise destination, owning about 37 percent of the market share in 2014, up 3 percent from the year before.
"Unless you stop the demand side, which is those great many cruise ship passengers and North American tourists, you will continue to see dolphinariums open in the Caribbean," says Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), which has protested dolphinariums in Jamaica.
How wild dolphins end up in captivity
McCaulay told The Dodo that the process of capturing dolphins in the wild is "very traumatic."
"They are chased into nets ... they are rounded up, the ones they want are selected, then they are lifted up into a boat and transported," she explains, adding that female dolphins are preferred because they are more "trainable."
A December 2014 letter jointly written by the AWI and WDC in protest of a proposed St. Kitts dolphinarium at Bird Rock Beach details how dolphins are caught in the wild:
Individuals may become entangled in the capture nets and suffocate or suffer stress-related conditions associated with the trauma of capture. In addition, captures from the wild can negatively impact already depleted dolphin populations by removing breeding (or otherwise important) members from the group.
The letter points out that scientific data from 1995 have shown that the mortality rate of captured bottlenose dolphins is dramatically increased during capture and transport.
Moreover, "methods used to transport cetaceans can also be inhumane, and many individuals have died as a result of injury and stress brought about by efforts to supply captive facilities around the world."
A review of Ceta Base shows just how often dolphins are transported. One dolphin, for example, named Tamra, has been transported 14 times. According to Ceta Base, she is currently at Atlantis.
The endless cycle: breeding for captivity
Although some places still capture dolphins from the wild, many in the Caribbean stock their facilities with captive-bred animals. Another prominent company in the Caribbean is Dolphin Cove, based in Jamaica. Dolphin Cove Ltd. owns a number of dolphinariums in the region and has won a World Travel Award - "the Oscars of the travel industry" - since 2011.
The owners of Dolphin Cove, Stafford and Marilyn Burrowes, recently told The Jamaica Observer that the company launched a captive dolphin breeding program four years ago. Five of its dolphins have since given birth. "These days it is almost impossible to get dolphins from the wild because of the actions of animal rights groups," Stafford Burrowes told the newspaper. Dolphin Cove did not respond to The Dodo's request for comment.
reEarth's Duncombe says one of her numerous concerns about breeding is that the captive-bred dolphins are losing their instincts: "What these facilities are doing ... is creating a whole substructure of animals who have no way of living in the wild."
In the end, Duncombe hopes that the public will pay more attention to the plight of the dolphin in captivity. But to the tourist who is still thinking about swimming with dolphins, she says bluntly:
"Your desire to be with them - is killing them."