Samuels, A. and Bejder, L. (2004) Chronic interaction between humans and free-ranging bottlenose dolphins near Panama City Beach, Florida. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, 6 (1). pp. 69-77.
‘Swim-with’ activities, in which humans enter the water to interact with free-ranging cetaceans, are a popular form of nature tourism; however, there is considerable disagreement as to whether these encounters constitute a threat to the animals. At the request of the US Marine Mammal Commission, a systematic study was designed to quantify effects of swim-with activities on the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins in waters near Panama City Beach, Florida. Certain dolphin behaviours were identified as indicative of chronic interaction with humans, and based on presence of these behaviours, at least seven dolphins were identified that permitted people to swim nearby. Because these dolphins accepted food handouts from people, they were considered to be conditioned to human interaction through food reinforcement. Specific human-dolphin interactions that posed a risk for dolphins or humans were identified, and it was calculated that human interaction put a specific juvenile dolphin at risk once every 12 min, including being fed by humans once every 39-59 min. Humans interacting with that dolphin were estimated to be at risk once every 29 min. Although the study was of limited duration, the observations were so clear-cut and the nature of interactions so potentially hazardous it was concluded that food provisioning was the probable basis for swimming with free-ranging dolphins near Panama City Beach, Florida, and therefore, human interaction at this location was likely to be harmful to the dolphins and in clear violation of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. Of equal importance to the findings of this study is the methodology. A systematic behavioural methodology was designed that can be adapted to study potential impacts of nature tourism on coastal communities of cetaceans in which individuals are readily distinguished. The focus was on the behaviour of individual animals in order to describe and quantify in-water interactions between dolphins and humans, to make behavioural comparisons for the same individual dolphins in the presence and absence of swimmers, and to make behavioural comparisons for individual dolphins in the same region that do and do not interact with swimmers. Coupled with standard photo identification techniques, these methods can be used to identify the class of animals, or proportion of a local community, that is more likely to interact with, be detrimentally affected by, and/or avoid human interaction. Sequential observations of the same individuals taken over time can be used to document habituation or sensitisation to human interaction.