Book Review: Rekindling the Waters: The Truth About Swimming with Dolphins by Leah Lemieux (2009 Troubador Publishing Ltd., UK, 354 pp)
By Mark J. Palmer
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
Leah Lemieux has written a unique book about one person's close experiences with a group of captive dolphins, and the tragic consequences for those dolphins of their captivity. A manifesto for anti-captivity, Rekindling the Waters is an outspoken and eloquent plea for keeping dolphins wild and free in the oceans where they belong, not in concrete tanks doing stupid tricks for crowds at aquariums.
The first two-thirds of the book chronicle the author's years swimming and interacting with a group of captive bottlenose dolphins in Cuba, and the contrast with wild dolphins. Lemieux's experience with these dolphins, each with individual personalities, is completely unique. Virtually all people who experience dolphins do so only for a short time in an aquarium. Even staff of aquariums do not get to "know" their dolphins, as they spend most of their time trying to "train" the dolphins to do what people want - tricks. Dolphin researchers keep their dolphins at an academic distance, intent on learning specific answers to specific questions.
Lemieux, by contrast, swims with these dolphins on their terms. She takes great pains not to initiate contact, for example, allowing the dolphins to respond in their own time and on their own account. She details their reactions without trying to put a human face on dolphin behavior (although she is not always successful in this). And she spent years with these dolphins, on weeks-long vacations in Cuba where she had unique access to the dolphins and could readily interact with them without requiring them to eat or do tricks or demanding anything of them.
This section of the book is both enlightening and inspirational. Lemieux is lyrical in her discussions of her encounters with these dolphins. Sometimes, her prose gets a bit too purple and "new age" in places, but generally she describes in detail what she saw and felt, and her observations of her dolphin family presents a record few people will ever experience.
The last third is a detailed, documented discussion of the problems with keeping dolphins in captivity. Her experiences in Cuba with the captive dolphins brings her to the realization that the animals, despite have a large salt-water lagoon to live in (much larger by far than the average aquarium tank), cannot behave or live like true wild dolphins, free to swim for miles, feed themselves, and interact with a host of their own family members.
Lemieux outlines the problems of captivity, ranging from the mundane question of adequate nutrition to deeply philosophical questions about keeping such intelligent and unique animals in virtual slavery to serve our baser instincts.
More and more people are questioning the keeping of dolphins in captivity. The last dolphin shows shut down several years ago in the British Isles, while the US aquarium industry, while thriving, has more and more turned away from dolphin shows to please the public, in favor of more education and more unique exhibits of marine life such as jelly fish and coral reefs.
But captive dolphins are still a thriving industry, especially tacky and dangerous "swim with dolphins" programs in vacation resorts that threaten the health and welfare of both dolphin and human participants, mostly in Third World countries with little incentive to implement conservation measures. Indeed, most of the captive dolphins are caught by methods that kill many dolphins, including the horrendous "drive fisheries" in places like Japan and the Solomon Islands, where dolphin traffickers take advantage of local people to pick out "show quality" dolphins - hundreds of others are butchered for the meat market.
Lemieux's Rekindling the Waters is an excellent eye-opening critique of the captive dolphin trade.