Should Dolphin-Assisted Childbirth Be Legal?

Using cetaceans as doulas poses risks for animals and humans alike, experts say.

Cute as they may be, are these really the faces that you want to greet your newborn baby? (Photo: Wild Horizon / Getty Images)

May 30, 2013· 4 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A North Carolina couple’s decision to fly to Hawaii so they can experience a “dolphin-assisted birth” has made worldwide headlines and earned them almost universal scorn by scientists, the press, and the public. It’s a bad idea for the dolphins, most people agree, and a dangerous proposition for a woman about to give birth. It might even be illegal.

Last month, Adam Barringer, 29, and his wife Heather, 27, traveled to Pahoa, on the Island of Hawaii, to prepare for the birth of their first child, which, they hope, will take place in the ocean surrounded by a pod of “healing” dolphins.

The idea of “dolphin-assisted birth” is not new, but only now seems to be on the media’s radar. It is championed by a group in Hawaii called The Sirius Institute.

At the institute, the Barringers will spend time in the sea trying to bond with a dolphin pod which would then be available to “attend” the underwater birth of their child, when the time comes. “It is about reconnecting as humans with the dolphins so we can coexist in this world together and learn from one another,” Heather Barringer told the Charlotte Observer, which first reported the story.

According to Sirius’s website, dolphin-assisted births were studied in the Black Sea 20 years ago. “Some of the reported occurrences include a mother and a baby playing with the dolphins within 45 minutes of the birth.” And, another dolphin was seen “escorting a newborn human baby to the surface for its first breath.” Hawaiians, the site adds, “performed underwater births with dolphins as late as 1937 and still privately maintain this practice.”

The volcanic coast of Hawaii, with its protected coves, is ideal for “establishing water birth with dolphins and the human-dolphin habitats where we can live and learn from each other,” the institute says. “This area can also be the first embassy for the Cetacean Commonwealth,” whatever that means. It is likely part of the institute’s mission is to “dolphinize” the planet.

“Dolphinization is the raising of the consciousness of humans to the level of the dolphins and to integrate the Cetacea (dolphins and whales) into the cultures of the Earth,” the website says. “When this is achieved, we will have a planet with two major sentient species in harmony and cooperation. We and the Cetacea have been, and can become again ... Co-species.”

The problem is nobody asked the Cetacea if they wanted to be “co-species” with us.

The overarching goal of the landmark 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was to ensure that dolphins, whales and other marine mammals were left alone as much as possible. The law contains stiff penalties for anyone who touches, harasses or feeds a marine mammal in U.S. waters, though it does not specifically ban swimming in the sea with them.

To some conservationists, though, swimming with wild dolphins for fun, health, or profit can be stressful on wild pods, at best, and could constitute harassment, at worst, which is a federal offense.

“Sadly, it is very difficult to ensure that any wild encounter takes place on the whale or dolphins’ terms and is not an intrusive or stressful experience for what are, after all, wild animals,” Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) tells TakePart. “WDC is unable to recommend public support for commercial swim-with wild cetacean programs...wild whales or dolphins may be harassed and repeatedly disturbed by swim boats which tend to drop swimmers in the water as close as possible to the animals.”

In Hawaii, spinner dolphins enter bays to rest up during the day, before they go out and forage at night. “Disturbing them during this critical resting period can lead to displacement from their natural habitat and other behavioral changes that may have harmful consequences for their health and welfare in the longer term,” Vail says. “This is just another unfortunate example of the marketing of dolphins which may have negative consequences for their protection in the wild.”

Vail points to research “in areas heavily targeted by commercial swim tours and other human activities,” where dolphins are forced from their traditional habitat in favor of quieter locations. “There is concern that disruption to feeding, resting, nursing and other behavior may have a long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations,” Vail says.

I’m no attorney, but I do believe a legal case could be made against dolphin-assisted birth programs. According to the MMPA, “harassment” includes “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which…has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

If swim-with programs are displacing wild dolphins from their natural habitat, then, according to federal law, a crime has occurred. Even so, Vail concedes, “Law enforcement has a very tough time trying to prove harassment when it comes to swim-with activities in the wild.”

Giving birth at sea in close proximity to dolphins is not only potentially bad for the animals and possibly illegal, but it is also recklessly dangerous for a pregnant woman and her fetus or baby, critics charge.

YouTube is packed with videos of dolphins—in captivity and in the wild— menacing, attacking and sometimes hurting humans:

1) A captive dolphin “humps” a female visitor. Imagine if she were pregnant?

2) A wild dolphin turns on a male diver.

3) A wild dolphin shows an unsettling interest in a young woman’s groin.

Dolphins look cute and friendly, but they can be brutal predators, gang rapists, and killers. In Death at SeaWorld, I describe a frightening encounter experienced by Naomi Rose, now a marine mammalogist for Humane Society International, at a dolphin research center in Hawaii:

Naomi got in the water and started swimming around the pool’s perimeter. The dolphins were alongside her. The students were told not to stop or look at the animals or to appear in any way nervous. She swam a few feet, but must have seemed timid. The dolphins turned on her. Smash, bang, BOOM. One of the 350-pound animals butted Naomi hard across the chest with her snout. The other slapped Naomi in the face with her fluke, sending Naomi’s mask flying. Naomi was dazed. She lost her bearings, blinded and unable to catch her breath. She felt helpless, but she had no chance to panic, though her ribs felt like they had been crushed as the air was expelled from her lungs.

Had Rose been pregnant at the time, the risk to her fetus could have been significant.

Wild dolphins have injured many people—both intentionally and accidentally—debunking the perception they are “friendly and they're not going to hurt you despite the fact that they're wild," Stacy Horstman, a dolphin conservationist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview with Digital Journal. The act of swimming with a wild dolphin, “creates some major hurdles for us, because we try to convey that dolphins are no different from a bear, or an alligator, or lions,” she said.

Indeed, most critics are opposed to dolphin-assisted birth on both moral and safety grounds. “As a mother, I have an automatic instinct to nurture and protect my children,” says Alex Dorer of the anti-captivity group Fins and Fluke.

Dolphins know when a woman is pregnant through their amazing sonar ability, called echolocation. And they seem to take unusual, potentially dangerous interest in mothers-to-be.

“Many facilities require signed consent that the participant is not pregnant due to the extremely high risk of injury,” Dorer says. “It's absurd that any mother would take such a huge and dangerous risk.”