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Accessible Swimming with Dolphins
By: Sara Toth Stub | Nov 8 2017

Imagine gliding through the water on the fin of a dolphin, or simply swimming alongside these creatures, known to be both beautiful and intelligent. Swimming with dolphins has surged in popularity in recent years, from Hawaii to Egypt to the Bahamas, and the activity often tops the highlights of a trip. Swimming with these animals “can inspire a lifelong passion and appreciation for the conservation of our oceans,” Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammals Parks and Aquariums, wrote in a report about the growing number programs that allow people to swim with dolphins.


Dolphin-swimming programs in the United States
Dolphin-swimming programs in the United States

Now, numerous dolphin-swimming programs in the United States cater to both children and adults with physical disabilities. In addition to actually swimming with dolphins, many places also offer other forms of interaction, such as feeding the animals, wading near them in shallow water, and even producing art with them. Any of these options can be an especially rewarding and memorable experience. “In-water interactive programs with marine mammals offer a welcome respite from the daily concerns of those living with a serious illness and provide participants motivation to try to reach beyond the limitations of their disabilities,” according to the Alliance of Marine Parks and Aquariums, which only grants its sought-after certification to those facilities that accommodate people with disabilities.

Like general dolphin swimming attractions, those that can accommodate people with disabilities are overwhelmingly concentrated in Florida and Hawaii. While these programs do cater to a variety of needs, most do limit the participation of pregnant women for safety reasons.

It should also be noted that each location is unique, so it is best to contact any of these places before visiting to see which one best fits your needs.

The Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida, is a standout when it comes to catering to people with disabilities. The center offers programs that help children, military veterans and others with disabilities connect with dolphins and learn more about themselves through these experiences. The center says that it “is committed to making it possible for everyone to enjoy experiencing dolphins in one of our interactive programs.”  

In addition to helping visitors participate in regularly scheduled programs, ranging from swimming and playing with dolphins to helping conduct scientific research on dolphins and their environment, the center offers the individually-tailored Special Needs Dolphin Pathways Program. This program combines lectures with in-water experiences designed to meet the needs and goals of participants. The inclusion of those with disabilities has resulted in partnerships with organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project and various wish-granting foundations. For more information about the Pathways program and other accommodations for those with disabilities, contact special needs director, Joan Mehew, at (305) 289-1121 ext. 228 or by email at joan@dolphins.org.

The Dolphin Connection in Duck Key, Florida, is another good option, where a special needs coordinator helps make sure that those visitors with disabilities get any assistance they need in order to swim and interact with dolphins. In addition to opportunities to swim with dolphins, visitors can also touch, feed and interact with dolphins from a dock that stretches out into the water.

In Hawaii, the Sea Life Park in Waimanalo offers several options to interact with dolphins, from being pushed through the water by a dolphin, to a play area with these animals in waist-deep water, to swimming alongside the animals. The facility is wheelchair accessible, and a dedicated coordinator will help accommodate those with disabilities, as long as visitors contact Guest Services at least 48-hours before arriving to the park. Those with certain injuries or illnesses may require a doctor’s note in order to participate in some activities.

Dolphin Quest also operates two locations in Hawaii, one in Honolulu and one on the Big Island, and both have a dedicated coordinator to helps those visitors with any disabilities participate in various programs, ranging from swimming with dolphins to spending an entire week working alongside dolphin trainers. The special needs coordinator should be contacted prior to visiting. It should also be noted that participation in most programs does require guests to be able to move on their own through water, across sand, and up and down some stairs.

One of the few dolphin-swimming experiences outside of Florida and Hawaii is the Secret Garden at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. At the Secret Garden, participants can swim and play with bottlenose dolphins in a manmade lake. The facility also offers other ways to interact with dolphins, by doing yoga in front of the glass of a dolphin tank and by creating art with the help of a dolphin, who holds a paintbrush in its mouth. The Secret Garden, an AMMPA-certified facility, also helps guests with disabilities participate in its programs. For more information, call the park at (702) 791-7472.

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