My Friend Maui vs. Ethical Tourism

"Dancing" with Maui at Sea Life Park.
"Dancing" with Maui at Sea Life Park.

In August of last year, Kyle and I visited Hawaii, and there was one thing I wanted to do above all else: Swim with a dolphin. Mind you, for someone who enjoys the water, I’m absolutely petrified of swimming in the ocean. For some sadistic reason, Kyle and I always hum the theme song to Jaws whenever we find ourselves splashing around in the waves. It doesn’t help things. Not to mention the fact that last summer, Hawaii was shark attack capital of the world! We did a kayaking/“snorkeling” adventure one day, and I asked our guide where the young girl had been killed the week before. He pointed. “That beach over there! The shark’s probably not around anymore. Look, there’s a sea turtle! Want to jump in!?” No thanks.

All this to say, swimming with a dolphin in the ocean just wasn’t on the docket for me. Kyle had always told me about this quasi-aquarium his parents had taken him to when he was little called Sea Life Park. They offered all kinds of experiences that would allow me to interact with Flipper! It was the day before my birthday, so Kyle bought me my “dolphin encounter,” which essentially had me standing in a line in a shallow pool waiting for my new dolphin friend, 23-year-old Maui, to come “dance” with me, and even give me a kiss! I know, right!? Sounded pretty cool to me. I was going to get to play with a dolphin. Awesome!

Fast forward to last month. Kyle and I went to Cancun, Mexico, for the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference. I attended for work, and Kyle to represent this little blog of ours. I had been following all the social media activity leading up to the conference, as I always do, but this year, there was a particular brewhaha over one of the pre-conference activities in which bloggers are able to participate. One of the sea life attractions was offering bloggers the opportunity to swim with dolphins. This led to a call for people to boycott the conference.

TBEX ultimately dropped the dolphin trip from the list of activities offered, and followed it up with a keynote on the first day of the conference given by representatives from the Center for Responsible Travel, and Green Global Travel. You can check out the controversy, reasoning, and solution here.

Now, I am not here to make a big statement about ethical travel. At this point, Kyle and I are writing a fun blog to share our travel experiences with you. I consider myself a pretty savvy traveler, moderately aware of some of the ethical dilemmas in the tourism industry today – probably more so than most tourists, simply because I’ve worked in tourism, and I read lots of travel blogs. I am as concerned with animal rights as the next person—I’ve seen Blackfish—of course I don’t want these beautiful creatures endangered just for my brief amusement.

When I first saw a video of an elephant “painting” by holding a paintbrush in his trunk, my first thought was, “Wow, that’s amazing!” The thought briefly crossed my mind: “How in the world could someone teach an elephant to paint like that?” I stopped myself from going there. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Of course, then I read a really great post by one of my favorite travel bloggers, Matt Long with Landlopers, and quickly changed my opinion on that matter. I know when Kyle and I find our way to Thailand, I won’t be seeking out places we can watch elephants paint, but rather opportunities to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary.

But after all this, I feel slightly strange saying I’m not affected in the same way by the plight of my favorite marine friends. The whole time I was listening to the TBEX keynote, I felt like I was about three inches tall. I wanted to hide under my seat until it was over. The general sentiment was that as bloggers, we have a responsibility to help educate other travelers about ethical tourism—we need to lead by example. We are supposed to be authorities on travel, helping others to plan trips. It’s our responsibility to steer them away from experiences that are harmful to the environment and/or the creatures that inhabit it.

All I kept thinking about was my dolphin friend Maui. He seemed so playful and happy to swim up to me and give me a kiss. Was I naïve for believing he actually wanted to do that? Was I in some way hurting him by giving my money to a facility that held him in captivity? I started to hate myself for thinking if I had the experience to do over, I wouldn’t change a thing. If anything, I’d opt for the more expensive, more “interactive” dolphin swim experience.

I’m not here to lecture you on the ethics of visiting a dolphinarium. I’ll leave that to the experts. I believe it’s good to be informed—as with anything else. Here are some facts. Now you can decide for yourself.

As for me, there’s a pretty high probability I’m going to make new dolphin friends in the future. I hate that saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” but it’s true. One of these places isn’t going to close down just because they don’t have my money. There will be plenty more tourists who go, blissfully unaware like I was the first time. Next time, I’ll likely look for a place where the dolphins are kept in a larger, more true-to-nature environment—not unlike the one found at Moon Palace Resort, which hosted TBEX. It’s true that many of the dolphins currently in captivity were actually born in captivity, and would therefore likely not survive in the wild. It makes me sad to think about dolphins who only know the inside of what’s essentially a large swimming pool, but it makes me sadder to think that their lives would be in vain if no one came to visit them. Dolphin shows have always been my favorite part of an aquarium experience, and I don’t see that changing. And I’m not ashamed that I enjoyed my dolphin encounter—or the fact that I’d do it again.

The evening of the TBEX keynote, the resort offered some bloggers the opportunity to participate in a baby sea turtle release. Naturalists had picked up more than 200 turtles less than an hour beforehand, and brought them to the resort to be released. As I was handed my first baby sea turtle, I turned to Kyle and asked, “Do you think this is ethical?” I saw one of the speakers from the morning’s talk in the crowd, sea turtle in hand, so that made me feel better. But I think that’s my takeaway. As long as we ask ourselves the important questions, causing us to seek necessary information and make our own informed decisions, that’s what’s important. That, to me, is responsible tourism.

Sea Turtle Release in Cancun

Sea Turtle Release in Cancun

Places

Sea Life Park

Sea Life Park Hawaii, Kalanianaole Highway, Waimanalo, HI, United States
(808) 259-2500

Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort

Moon Palace Golf Spa Resport, Cancún, Mexico
+52 998 881 6000

Sea Life Park

Sea Life Park Hawaii, Kalanianaole Highway, Waimanalo, HI, United States
(808) 259-2500
https://www.sealifeparkhawaii.com/

Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort

Moon Palace Golf Spa Resport, Cancún, Mexico
+52 998 881 6000
http://www.moonpalacecancun.com/

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