I’m being seriously spoiled this weekend. It’s my first three day weekend since Thanksgiving...and our fifth anniversary (shocking!). That’s why we’re celebrating it in style at a fancy resort in easy distance to some of the best kayaking in the Florida Keys.  From Miami, it’s not such a splurge. It’s the ideal weekend getaway for the harried.

Three days and three nights at Hawk’s Cay on Duck Key (mile marker 61, smack in the middle of the islands). It’s a little stuffy but oh so cozy, too. Stargazing lectures at night, fine dining 24-7, gorgeous spa, boats for rent, huge pools, and a salt water lagoon, too. All amid a landscape of [mostly] native plants and trees.

After arriving, we took a stroll around the grounds and were shocked when two fins appeared in a body of water adjacent to the salt water lagoon: Dolphins!

I counted at least three bottle-nosed dolphins penned into one 20 x 20 meter area of water contiguous with a motor waterway. Another similar pen ay beyond––with two more sets of fins spied intermittently above water. Posted signs indicated the species and explained the importance of dolphin conservation and the role of dolphin training in health, safety and basic maintenance of these marine mammals. 

All the right signs appeared with their traditional warnings and welfare-oriented statements attesting to the education and intelligence of the keepers and their charges. “Guards” posted to keep interlopers out. Would-be unauthorized feeders kept at bay. It’s the kind of by-the-book stuff you see at any marine mammal sanctuary, rehabilitation center or community aquarium...with an added bonus for the resort’s patrons. (Here's their online video tour and explanation of their educational mission.)

Yes, at swanky Hawk’s Cay you can “swim with the dolphins” while awaiting your massage, pilates class or parasailing adventure. As advertised, you too can arrive with no training in marine mammals, slip into the water alongside ‘em, give signals for tricks and offer fish at the end. A lucky child might be gently splashed, ride a small circle while attached to a dorsal fin, and receive a dolphin-style “kiss” on the mouth. 

It’s undoubtedly “sweet.” Onlookers coo and clap, every bit as delighted as the little children or the newlyweds who wear their Mickey Mouse bride and groom hats for the close-up photo ops. And why not? A dolphin is a rare sight in Minneapolis and New Brunswick, right? 

These dolphins are absolutely beautiful, delightfully well-trained, and happy-go-lucky in every perceptible way. They’re perfectly maintained. And they live only a mile away from the Dolphin Research Center, a not-for-profit enterprise that offers similar “swim with the dolphin” experiences along with resident veterinary care the resort avails itself of, as well.

Why not take a swim? For around $100 I, too, can contribute to the maintenance of dolphins that might otherwise have no place to go. After all, we all know that municipal aquariums are underfunded, many dolphin programs (public and private) are no longer packing in the crowds, and the welfare issues related to keeping marine mammals are significant.

What to do with an elephant after the circus shuts down? With a Silverback gorilla no zoo needs? With a dolphin, now that the Navy can no longer justify them, now that Seaquariums and small water parks everywhere can no longer turn a dime on their expensive, in-house presence?

When the human masses achieve some semblance of enlightenment and no longer care to continue to contribute to the decimation of habitats and the maltreatment of intelligent species, places like this resort are where these animals go to die. And that raises a wide variety of ethical issues I’ve been pondering over the last couple of days. 

So do I swim with the dolphins...or not?

Since you see me in none of these pictures, you can safely assume I chose the latter option. 

While I respect the right of any parent to inspire adoration and respect for wildlife by choosing to allow their children this opportunity, I see absolutely no reason to contribute to this farce, myself. 

Sure, part of it has to do with having had the opportunity to undertake dolphin swims in  a veterinary capacity while an extern at the Baltimore Aquarium. “Been there, done that,” you could say. But as a wise man also crooned, “It’s never enough until your heart stops beating.” And that’s how I feel about dolphins. I could spend eons with them and still, I’d never have my fill of their mammalian company...in theory, that is.

Yet in practice, dolphins should have next to nothing to do with humans. Spied from ashore, frolicking from afar...that’s about it. Can’t think of any other reasonable excuse to interact with them up close and personal beyond veterinary attempts on their behalf. 

Now that’s we’ve abused of their likes and [yes, I’ll use the incendiary word] “enslaved” them into our company, we have to live with the ones we have left, even if we can barely afford them. As long as releasing them is not widely considered a reasonable option (as it is not for most animals raised in captivity or kept out of their kind’s company for wide swaths of time), they’ll have to make do by earning their keep. Or so the story goes. 

But that doesn’t mean I can justify a $100 swim. Not if it means someone’s still turning a profit off their backs. Not if it means my dollars will in any way be construed as a tacit endorsement of their captivity in a small, petroleum-laced lagoon with small children for company instead of their own. Might as well go to the circus. Or not.