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The Sciences

FYI: Giving Birth in the Ocean with Wild Dolphins is *Still* a Fantastically Awful Idea

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Two years ago, a newspaper story about a couple from North Carolina heading to Hawaii for a "dolphin-assisted birth" caught my attention on Twitter. Now "spiritual healer" Dorina Rosin is planning a similar stunt, believing the birth will be more relaxing and natural than one in a hospital. She also believes that her child will be able to speak dolphin. Her birth is to be featured on a British documentary Extreme Births. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puBDR_XM2tI So far, there's no info on whether the mother-to-be has gone through with the at-sea birth or not. For that matter, no one knows what happened to the couple from NC — as far as I can tell, no one has ever actually gone through with a wild dolphin-assisted birth. I was able to find one grainy video of what appears to be a birth with a live dolphin, but it's clear that this woman is in a pool with a captive dolphin, not the ocean. Update 9/2: According to the documentary, Dorina did not go through with her watery plans. She went into labor at night, and thus had a natural birth on land. But, she did say she could feel the dolphins 'sending positive energy'. Below is my original commentary on the practice of dolphin-assisted births, from 2013. But the tl;dr version: Dolphins are wild animals. Wild animals do not make good midwives.

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Dorina on her 38-week blessing swim-with-dolphins — a practice considered harmful to the animals. Photo from The Daily Mail

Dolphin-Assisted Birth—Possibly The Worst Idea, Ever.

I consider myself to be a fairly grounded person, so I'm rarely shocked by anything I see on the internet. But then, this tweet by Emily Anthes appeared in my stream:

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O_o. The couple planning to do this are entirely serious—and they won't be the first to travel to Hawaii for a dolphin-assisted birth. My professional opinion: this has to be, hands down, one of the worst natural birthing ideas anyone has ever had (and that is saying a lot).

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I know they're pretty, but really, you don't want these guys to play midwife. Photo by Flickr user docklander Let's talk about dolphins for a moment. I get it — they're stunning creatures. These sleek, smart, playful animals are almost universally loved by people. Dolphin interactive experiences are hot sellers at tourist locations worldwide, and we naturally want to trust their cheeky, smiling faces. So many people I know got into marine science because of their affinity for dolphins and other marine mammals. I understand why a to-be mother might want to calm her nerves by having a dolphin in the tub during an underwater birth. I can even stretch my imagination and see why a woman would enjoy swimming with a pod of dolphins and giving birth while watching the beautiful displays of these majestic animals. But, DEAR GOD. NO. JUST. NO. Because of their friendly disposition and common occurance in aquariums, we tend to think of dolphins as trustworthy, loving creatures. But let's get real for a minute here. Dolphins don't eat sunshine and fart roses. They're wild animals, and they are known to do some pretty terrible things. Look at how their treat their women. Male dolphins are aggressive, horny devils. Males will kidnap and gang-rape females with their prehensile penises, using alliances of several males to keep females isolated from the rest of the group. As Miriam Goldstein once explained to Slate

, "To keep her in line, they make aggressive noises, threatening movements, and even smack her around with their tails. And if she tries to swim away, they chase her down." Male dolphins don't just rape their females — they've also been known to assert authority by forcibly mounting other males. They also get a kick out of beating on and killing other animals. Dolphins will toss, beat, and kill small porpoises

 or baby sharks

for no apparent reason other than they enjoy it, though some have suggested the poor porpoises serve as practice for killing the infants of rival males

. That's right, not only do dolphins kill other animals, they kill baby dolphins using the same brutal tactics. No matter how cute they might appear, dolphins are not cuddly companions; they are real, large, ocean predators with a track record for violence — even when it comes to humans. Just ask Michael Maes, an underwater videographer who has seen first hand just how dangerous dolphins can be

. While diving in Grand Cayman, Maes describes a local dolphin nicknamed "Stinky" attempting to ride him and push him to the ground. The animal then turned toward Maes' friend Alex, circling him, prodding him, and rubbing against him, finally trying to roll on top of him and push him to the surface. "Stinky is in an awkward situation which can turn him into a playful killer-machine," Michael wrote on his YouTube page. "Please be prudent people and get out of the water when you see him. Believe me, if he decides, you don't stand the slightest chance!" Imagine if, instead of trained scuba divers, Michael or Alex were snorkelers, one of them in labor or carrying a newborn infant. Maes certainly isn't the first to be roughhoused by a dolphin. Videos of inapropriate behavior can be found all over YouTube, from both captive and wild dolphins. Attacks range from playful to downright perilous, especially when the dolphin decides to push its human toy deep underwater. But a dolphin doesn't need depth to be dangerous — or even deadly

. Off a beach in Brazil, two men saw a dolphin near to shore, and excited by the animal's presence, decided to approach it. When they touched the apparently friendly dolphin, it flipped out and rammed both the men with serious force. One of the men later died of internal injuries. Is this an animal you want to have at your side when you're completely vulnerable? What would you do if the dolphin does get aggressive, decides to attack the mother or even the newly-emerged baby? How would you protect either from a three-to-four hundred pound animal with lightning speed and agility that is more at home in the environment than you are? And that's just the dolphin side of things. What if something goes wrong with the birth in general? What if the baby gets stuck, or the mother starts hemorrhaging? Do you really want to be deep in the ocean if something happens? The Sirius Institute

, where the couple is headed, claims that a natural dolphin-assisted birth is completely safe. "Some of the reported occurrences include a mother and a baby playing with the dolphins within 45 minutes of the birth," claims the site, "another instance of a free dolphin escorting a newborn human baby to the surface for its first breath." They claim that wild dolphins will come into shallower pools, massaging the mother to help deliver the child, but they don't have any evidence to back up these claims. When Penn and Teller

talked to the institute, they found that none of the mothers which came to Sirius actually went through with the ocean birth. Somehow, I'm not surprised. The basis for the institutes' claims seems to be that dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) is relaxing and soothing. But, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation

, "there is no scientific evidence to prove that the therapy is effective," furthermore, "both people and animals can be exposed to infection and injury when participating in these programs." Dr. Lori Marino takes the criticism even further

. "Nearly a decade following our initial review, there remains no compelling evidence that DAT is a legitimate therapy or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in mood."

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Swimming with dolphins programs may actually be harming wild populations. Photo by Flicr user Dominic Even if dolphin-assisted births were safe or good for people, no one seems to be asking how the dolphins feel about it. More than 40,000 people swim with dolphins every year, and there is growing concern that such programs are negatively impacting dolphin populations. "Research indicates that, in some areas heavily targetted by commercial swim tours and other human activities, dolphins are actually leaving their traditional habitat in favour of quieter areas," explains the Whale and Dolphin Conservation

. "There is concern that disruption to feeding, resting, nursing and other behaviour may have a long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations." Scientists have found that dolphins have started avoiding people in swim-with-dolphin areas

, and operators of such programs show no interest

in complying with regulations put in place to protect the animals. I sincerely hope Adam and Heather reconsider their options. If they want to have a natural birth, that is one thing, but having one in the ocean with wild dolphins is a seriously bad idea for them and the animals they want to have this special bond with.

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