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Wildlife tourism is currently one of the biggest growth industries in the world. People want to see animals in their natural habitat – but with zoo like conditions – at close range and on demand. They want to interact – to touch, pat and feed them almost as if they were pets.

Around Australia it’s possible to feed and swim with wild dolphins. These tourist ventures are growing fast – but usually the commercial developers and tourists arrive before the scientists and environmentalists – leaving the animals ripe for exploitation.

Dolphin Mania tells the story of a coastal community outside Melbourne, Australia where a small number of operators – with differing philosophies – are licensed to run dolphin swim tours. A code of practice has been established to protect the dolphins. But these regulations are rarely policed leaving the operators to enforce the law amongst themselves.

Judy Muir and her family run the Polperro and set off twice a day from Sorrento pier. When the dolphins appear the passengers hang onto buoy lines and squeal with delight as the mammals leap and cavort nearby. Such encounters are euphoric and research has shown that dolphins have the ability to crash through human defenses to reach our emotional core promoting laughter and happiness. The result can be therapeutic – particularly for those suffering from illnesses or emotional disorders.

But Judy worries about what impact the tours may be having on the animals. The Dolphin Research Institute has found that when the tour boats approach the dolphins, their behaviour changes markedly. They may alter direction, call out more frequently to each other or even send out a decoy dolphin to interact with the boats while the rest swim away. On a busy day, tour boats are interacting with the dolphins every 90 seconds. No one knows what long-term implications may result from this constant disturbance. Judy and her son Troy now face a daily dilemma. How can they introduce people to the marine environment without turning it into a theme park?

Dolphin Mania explores the viability of nature based tourism through the experience of a small community of tour boat operators.

Press Quotes & Reviews

    Type the phrase 'swim with dolphins' into an Internet search engine and you will pull up a screen full of tour sites, from one side of the world to the other, inviting you to frolic with wild dolphins in their watery realms. The popularity of these programs attests to the fascination humans have with these playful mammals that have an intelligence thought to be on a par primates. But unfortunately there has been little scientific research into the impact on wild dolphins of repeated close encounters with humans. DolphinMania looks at this issue from the perspective of dolphin tour operators in a small coastal Victorian town.

    DONNA MAEGRAITH, The Australian 27/12/01

    The Peninsula township of Sorrento is one of the few places in the world where people can swim with wild dolphins. But dolphin-based tourism is threatening to divide the community. Laws govern the industry but as Sally Ingleton's pretty and provocative documentary point out, operators are left to self regulate. Tourists expect to see animals on demand…Until we know more, documentaries like DolphinMania are perhaps as close as we should get to these splendid animals.

    BARBARA HOOKS, The Age 27/12/01

    Producer Sally Ingleton steers her craft into some choppy seas around the Victorian ton of Sorrento. She looks at the dilemmas now faced by boat tour operators licensed to take tourists out in the Bay to swim there with wild dolphins.

    Sunday Age 23/12/01

    Dolphins have an almost magical attraction, with many people claiming that a close encounter with them is a life changing experience. But what about the poor marine mammals themselves? There's concern about their welfare in many spots around Australia where swimming with dolphins or hand feeding them is a tourist drawcard. This special looks at the issues from the perspective of dolphin tour operators in a small coastal Victorian town.

    Courier Mail 29/12/01

    This documentary looks at the issues surrounding the dolphin tours operating out of Sorrento. Over a period of years, the two main operators have built up a relationship of coexistence and mutual respect with a pod of dolphins, allowing their paying customers to hop in the water with the mammals. But although regulations are in place to protect the dolphins, we soon discover the only ones policing them are the tour operators.

    Sunday Herald Sun 23/12/01