Why we shouldn’t swim with dolphins.

Update 20 March 2014

An article in today's Irish Examiner has been brought to our attention by concerned readers.  See link below


So it's a good opportunity to re-state our consistent positon on this welfare matter. 


Why shouldn’t I swim with the Doolin Dolphin…or any dolphin?

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) are concerned about the content of a recent article published in the Irish Examiner regarding the now infamous Doolin dolphin, known as "Dusty".  In particular, the IWDG are concerned about the apparent contradiction presented in this piece, that it is somehow acceptable to swim with a wild dolphin only if you have "built up a relationship" with that dolphin.  The misinformation provided in this article has the potential to significantly impact on the welfare of Dusty and to contribute to a recurrence of the unfortunate incidences of last year, which resulted in the serious injury of a swimmer.  Therefore, we would like to take this opportunity to clearly state our position on the appropriate treatment of this fascinating wild animal.

An accident waiting to happen..Dusty at Doolin Pier

The IWDG strongly urges all members of the public to avoid entering the water or attempting to swim with Dusty.  Wild animals are inherently different to domesticated and companion animals.  Dusty is a wild animal, and as such her behaviour cannot be predicted.  Any suggestion that it is possible to ‘build up a relationship’ with a wild animal such that interacting with that animal becomes safe and risk free is irresponsible and ill-informed.  It is well established that cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) such as Dusty are highly intelligent, sentient animals that exist in the wild in complex social groups.  These social bonds, however, exist within and not across species.  Any perceived ‘relationship’ between a human and a wild animal is a projection of human values onto the wild animal.  Wild animals behave much differently to humans.  Therefore, to attempt to predict a safe interaction with a wild animal because you believe you have a ‘special relationship’ with that animal is naive at best and potentially very dangerous. 

A wild animal being inquisitive or becoming conditioned to the presence of humans in their environment over-time does not constitute a ‘relationship’ and will not affect that animal’s potential to behave unpredictably or aggressively.  Dusty is a large and powerful bottlenose dolphin.  This species of cetacean has been shown to demonstrate aggressive behaviour in the wild.  Bottlenose dolphins routinely attack and kill both harbour porpoises and the smaller common dolphin. They are known to engage in infanticide and there is at least one documented case of a bottlenose dolphin killing a human.  Dusty has demonstrated the potential to carry out aggressive behaviour towards humans at several sites in Co. Clare over a number of years.  Therefore, swimming with wild bottlenose dolphins such as Dusty presents a significant risk to participant’s health and safety, regardless of the amount of times the participant may have engaged the dolphin in this activity or their perceived relationship with the individual dolphin.  Continuing to interact with Dusty in the water will almost certainly result in further serious injury and possible death.

Therefore, the IWDG recommend that in order to protect the welfare of Dusty and the health and safety of all onlookers, members of the public should not enter the water or attempt to swim with Dusty, at any location.  It is important for the conservation of this protected species and the welfare of individual dolphins, that habituation to humans be avoided.  Therefore, true conservationists will watch from the safety of land.  Those who chose to enter the water risk the welfare of the dolphin and their own safety.

Paul Kiernan

IWDG Welfare Officer 



Update: 4 September 2013

Over the years there has been much speculation about Dusty, the dolphin in North Clare, having given birth to a number of calves. Despite these local stories, nobody has ever provided evidence of a young calf being born to Dusty, though there have been images of Dusty interacting with a dead harbour porpoise – mistaken identify for a calf ?

On  2 December 2010, a neonate (newly born) bottlenose dolphin calf was found washed up dead near Doolin by Jamie Storer. The dolphin was recovered for post-mortem by Simon Berrow and it was a determined as a female, measuring 1.2m in length and weighing 21kg – the smallest bottlenose dolphin to be reported stranded in Ireland. There was no evidence that it had filled its lungs with air or suckled and thus it probably died immediately after being born. 

The IWDG speculated that maybe it was Dusty’s calf ? A skin sample was stored for genetic analysis. Local diver George Karbus was asked to collect some sloughed skin from Dusty so we could see if there was any relationship between her and the calf.  Samples were sent to Marie Louis at Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, France as part of her PhD on the genetic structure of a large resident bottlenose dolphin population in the English Channel with other populations in European waters.

Marie has recently managed to carry out an analysis and determined that Dusty and the stranded calf shared the same haplotype.  When looking at microsatellites, she found a relatedness coefficient of 0.44 between Dusty and the calf. Dusty is homozygote for a lot of loci, but the two dolphins shared a least one allele for all the 25 loci, so the calf is “likely Dusty's calf”.

Given the recent behaviour of Dusty in Doolin and suggestions locally that she gets more “aggressive when she is pregnant “  this latest analysis is relevant as it shows that Dusty is sexually mature, interacts and mates with other dolphins and has at least on one occasion had a calf. The fact that the calf died is to be expected as young bottlenose dolphin mothers generally require the assistance of other, more experienced adult females, to help raise their first calves. Clearly spending prolonged periods interacting with humans is not conducive to rearing a calf.  

Once again the IWDG requests people not to swim with Dusty in the short, or long-term, as clearly this interaction is preventing Dusty behaving “normally” and interacting “normally” with other bottlenose dolphins. It also demonstrates the value of proper research to inform us on management issues as well as to learn more about bottlenose dolphins in the wild.

We thank Jamie Storer, George Karbus, Conor Ryan and Marie Louis for contributing to this interesting note.

Dr Simon Berrow, IWDG Executive Officer

Update: 9 August 2013

During an interview on RTE Radio 1 LiveLine programme, Valerie, the women who was recently injured by Dusty, told listeners she was swimming at around 9pm, just her and one other woman when the rammimg occurred. The other woman in the water was a very regular swimmer with Dusty and it was Valeries opinion that Dusty didnt want her in the water at the same time. She started tail slapping agressively but as Valerie swam over to the steps to exit the water she was rammed.  She sustained 4 broken vertebrae in 6 different places, broken ribs and a damaged lung and as a a self-employed osteopath living in Lahinch faces months out of work recuperating.

She held no malice to the dolphin and understood that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She admitted that seeing the german woman swimming with the dolphin encouraged her to swim as well as she wanted some of the same attention. She was also of the opinion that Dusty tried to ram her again but pulled out as she thinks she was too near the pier.  If she had rammed again she could have been in serious trouble and as it was needed help to get out of the water.

She urged people who are visiting Dusty for the first time or have little experience not to enter the water. the IWDG are urging everybody, including the so called "experienced swimmers", not to enter the water with Dusty.  Hopefully the strong westerly winds forecast for the next week will discourage everybody swimming with Dusty, which might allow the situation to stablise.

IWDG commends Valerie for telling her story as a warning to others who may be thinking of swimming with Dusty.

Update: 4 August 2013

IWDG have put up more posters around Doolin for the long weekend and Clare County Council have also erected signs warning people not to swim with the dolphin so hopefully there will be no more incidents over the bank holiday. IWDG have carried out a large number of inteviews and discussions with journalists regarding Dusty and IWDG advice is not to swim with her. If interested you can listen back to some of these intreviews on:




Update: 1 August 2013

Following the ramming of a woman two weeks ago another person was rammed in Doolin, Co. Clare by Dusty last Sunday 28th July while trying to climb out of the water at the pier.  The incident resulted in the swimmer suffering a compressed vertebrae, broken rib and damage to her lungs and the woman had to be helped out of the water by people on the pier.  An ambulance took her to hospital.

see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-uVSUMVIiQ

Clearly this level of injury is very serious and a fatal attack could easily happen.  IWDG are concerned that more people may be planning to visit Doolin over the long weekend and as always we request people not to enter the water with this bottlenose dolphin, or any dolphin for that matter. Clearly a contingency plan needs to be developed with the relevant and competant authorities in the near future on management of Dusty and people in Doolin.  But at present we would like to get through what remains of the summer without further incident.


26 July 2013

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) have put up posters around Doolin slip and harbour warning about the hazards of swimming with Dusty, the bottlenose dolphin.

After another swimmer was badly hurt by Dusty in Doolin Harbour last Thursday, Clare County Council contacted Simon Berrow of the IWDG to ask if they would prepare signage to erect around the pier warning people about the dangers of swimming with Dusty.

Apparently the woman, who was visiting the area from Westport, Co Mayo was rammed in the abdomen by the dolphin and was transported to A&E in Galway Hospital. At least three or four other people have been rammed so hard by Dusty, resulting in their being admitted to hospital.  One woman was medivaced back to Germany after she was rammed by Dusty in Fanore. This may only be the tip of the iceberg.

It is IWDG policy to discourage people swimming with whales and dolphins in Ireland. The risk is not only to humans but also to the dolphin as habituation to humans increases risk of injury or death to the dolphin. Around 80% of such interactions worldwide end up in the death or severe injury of the dolphins involved. 

IWDG drafted a poster recommending people do not swim with Dusty, but if they must then they should respect her as a wild dolphin and do not grab, lunge or chase after her.  If she shows agressive behaviour or is boisterous they should leave the water. This poster was approved by Clare County Council and 20 posters were distributed locally on Thursday morning. The local lifeguards were consulted and posters tied to the railings on the pier. The ferry boat operators working out of Doolin were especially grateful that somebody was addressing this issue and an additional 10 posters have been sent to Doolin so every vessel can display them.

IWDG acknowledges that many people have had a fantastic encounter with Dusty and have built up a personal relationship with the dolphin.  However IWDG is very concerned that many visitors, especially in the summer, do not recognise the signals that Dusty sends out when she is not happy with their behaviour.  Ignoring such signs or behaving inappropriately has led on a number of occasions to aggressive interactions with some people being severly injured.

If this continues, it may lead to a fatality and there will be strong pressure to remove or destroy the dolphin. If you really are concerned about Dusty you will not swim with her, or at least if you do,  you should show her the respect a wild dolphin is entitled to. Dusty has been in North Clare at least since 2000, where she was first seen around "the jump" near Doolin. The IWDG held a public meeting in 2000 to discuss with the local community what might be the implications and consequences of her long-term presence in the area. That winter she moved to Fanore and also spent extended periods in Miltown Malbay but has now returned to Doolin.

IWDG, together with the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation will continue to monitor the sitauation and work with the local community and authorities to ensure the dolphin, and people, do not come to harm.

A PDF of the poster can be downloaded below (538 KB)