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QUESTION: Is it correct that a dolphin in the wild and or in captivity is not going to harm a human as long as you leave the animal alone? In the 1993 move Free Willy an adult told a child the same thing about a recent captured orca in an aquarium.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/south/series1/lone-dolphins.shtml
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ti%C3%A3o

ANSWER: Wild dolphins are not likely to seek out a human in the water to harm him/her.  But the same cannot necessarily be said for a captive dolphin.

I know of one very sad case of a Pacific Bottlenose dolphin who was captured wild and transferred to Seaquarium in Miami, FL.  I saw this poor animal swimming in tiny circles in a miniscule tank no more than 20 feet across.  The keepers had named him "Darth" because he was very dark grey and also because he was extremely aggressive.  No one could safely enter his tank without danger of being attacked.  Not that I blame Darth.  He was stolen from his family and kept in a tiny prison until he died an untimely death.  

There are also instances of Orcas attacking their trainers, and--on rare occasions--drowning them, apparently intentionally.  The trainers were in the tanks with the orcas at the time, of course.  It's hard to imagine how someone could be injured by a captive whale or dolphin if they were not in the tank, and--by definition--if you're in the tank, you're not exactly leaving the animal alone.

These are highly intelligent, sensitive animals, but they are not human.  They have their own evolutionary history and the behaviors that have helped their ancestors survive.  Some of that includes aggression.  They are unpredictable in captivity, and swimming with one is not without risk.

On the matter of Orcas, there are different cultures in Orca populations.  Pods that feed on seals tend to be far-ranging and can be very aggressive.  Those that feed on fish (usually salmon) tend to stay closer to shore and are generally more peaceful, interacting calmly with humans.

So...long, windy answer to your question:  I don't think what the movie says is entirely true.

Hope that helps.

Dana

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Wild dolphins are not likely to seek out a human in the water to harm him/her.  But the same cannot necessarily be said for a captive dolphin. Why are dolphins in captivity different with this?

What do you have to do if you want to swim with wild dolphins, but at the same time stay in strict compliance with The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA)?

What do you have to do if you see a injured dolphin that is stranded at the beach?

Answer
1.  What do you have to do if you want to swim with wild dolphins, but at the same time stay in strict compliance with The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA)?

It's not a great idea to do this.  But you can legally swim near them without coming into any type of physical contact with them.  Humans can carry viruses that are transmissible to dolphins (and vice versa) and can cause serious disease, so this is for the safety of the dolphins as well as the well-meaning human.

The MMPA states that humans may not "feed or harass" any wild marine mammal (in addition to not collecting, killing, etc.).  And that could include swimming too close to them.  It's a matter of judgment, and one should always err on the side of leaving the dolphins alone.


2.  What do you have to do if you see a injured dolphin that is stranded at the beach?

Follow the advice of the experts:

http://us.whales.org/issues/what-to-do-if-you-find-live-stranded-whale-or-dolphi

http://www.wikihow.com/Save-a-Stranded-Dolphin

along with dozens of other sites you can find by Googling "stranded dolphin what to do".

Hope that helps.

Dana

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Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

Expertise

I'm an evolutionary biologist with a passion for animals. Ask about natural history, behavior, ecology, evolution. PLEASE NOTE:

If you have found an "orphaned" or injured wild animal or bird:
Please don't waste time asking questions on the internet, as the answers may come too late. DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL, and DO NOT HANDLE IT unless it is in imminent danger. (Many wild "orphans" are not orphans at all!) If you are absolutely sure it is orphaned, keep it warm and quiet, and find a LICENSED WILDLIFE REHABILITATOR HERE. Don't try to raise a baby yourself, or rehabilitate an injured anmal. Many a well-intentioned rescuer will do more harm than good, especially with baby birds and baby rabbits.

I.D. OF MYSTERY ANIMALS
Without geographic location, time of day and habitat, I can't help. A clear picture is always best.

I.D. OF MYSTERY ANIMAL SOUNDS
It's impossible for me to I.D. an animal call without hearing it myself.

COMPARATIVE STRENGTHS
I'm not an expert on comparative strengths of different animals (more complicated than you might think!) nor bite forces.

FIGHTING ANIMALS
I refuse to answer "Which of these two animals--X or X--would win in a fight?".

These hypothetical matchups range from impossible (Grizzly Bears and Gorillas don't even occupy the same continent.) to ridiculous (Someone asked me "Who would win a fight between a Great White Shark and a tiger?").

The vast majority of animals--even the fierce and powerful--are not as warlike as Homo sapiens, and it's childish to project our aggressiveness onto them.

Experience

I have been the fortunate caregiver to a group of Black-tailed Jackrabbits rescued from the Miami International Airport, and not releasable in this area because they are not native. I also have rehabbed and released Eastern Cottontails, and am in contact with many very experienced wildlife rescuers who regularly handle injured or orphaned rabbits and hares.

Organizations
House Rabbit Society

Publications
Exotic DVM journal

Education/Credentials
I have a Ph.D. in Biology, with main areas of expertise in evolutionary biology, genetics, botany, and ecology.

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