KEY LARGO, Fla. - Teenager Shannon Riley was aglow as she stepped from the warm waters off Key Largo after frolicking with captive dolphins. "It's absolutely incredible," she said. "The most impressive thing, they seem so intelligent."
Dolphins Plus last year saw more than 15,000 tourists pay up to $125 per hour for such swims.
A decade ago, it was one of four small enterprises in the Florida Keys and Hawaii regulated by a federal agency. Today, such programs are available in at least 18 parks in the United States and numerous resorts worldwide.
But they have come under increased scrutiny amid complaints from animal advocates that dolphins are dangerous and that government oversight is no longer in effect.
Swim programs capitalize on people's fantasies about dolphins and ignore dangers the animals can pose, says Russ Rector of The Dolphin Freedom Foundation in Fort Lauderdale.
The Orlando theme park SeaWorld, owned by Anheuser-Busch Entertainment, now offers "trainer for the day" specials and outings with dolphins; it also plans swims with dolphins, stingrays and tropical fish.
But Rector offers a warning. "These same people wouldn't climb into a lion's cage, but they think nothing of jumping into the water with a dolphin. Both are wild animals. It's just a matter of time before a dolphin kills somebody."
Dolphins can be aggressive, says Lori Marino, a professor of behavioral biology at Emory University in Atlanta, "especially if you crowd them or if they don't want you in their tank. . . . They are so strong and so fast, they might want to send you a mild message and you could get hurt."
Bonita Hureau, a receptionist from New York, had no fear of swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas. Then one tried to ram her into a piling, she says, and she was able to save herself only by diving into nearby netting. Now she's adamant: "I will never swim with dolphins again."
Mark Alpert, a lawyer in Newton Center, Mass., also describes an ill-fated swim, in the Florida Keys. "I had no time to do anything," he recalls. A dolphin "came at me with full speed, and there was a resounding crack and my bones broke."
Not everybody feels swimming with dolphins is unsafe. Dorna Schroeter, a science teacher from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., has brought high-school students to Dolphins Plus every year for a decade.
The experience, she says, can spur interest in marine biology. "They get to interact with the staff and the dolphins. Some of them come back and say, `Yeah, this is cool. I really want to do this.' "
Several therapy programs also use dolphins to motivate disabled children or allow parents and siblings to interact with them. But they're not without their critics.
Betsy Smith, a Miami anthropologist, was among the first to introduce dolphins to children as therapy in the mid-1970s. Then, after spending more than a decade studying their interactions, she dismissed it as a bad idea. Dolphins are just too important to her, she admits.
"It was really hard to come back and see these animals kept in such a confined area when in their natural habit they roam miles and miles," she says. "In captivity, they are not able to use sonar. It's kind of like putting us in a dark closet to live."
David Nathanson, a psychologist who runs Dolphin Human Therapy in Key Largo, uses basic behavior-modification tactics to try to enhance certain motor and speech skills. Dolphins, he says, offer strong rewards. If a child does what a therapist wants, then an animal trainer directs the dolphin to interact.
"Our purpose is to jump-start these kids so they can benefit from traditional therapies," says Nathanson, who claims support from his studies that show increases in a disabled child's motor skills and mental capabilities.
The parents of Thomas Carling, an 8-year-old English boy with profound mental disabilities, put their faith in Nathanson. The dolphins, they say, are primarily responsible for enabling him to live outside an institution.
"When we first brought him four years ago, he couldn't point, he couldn't watch the telly," John Carling says. "He now has a degree of independence that he never had before."
Carling, a bank manager from Newcastle, England, paid $6,500 for two weeks of therapy. An additional $45,000 was needed for travel and other expenses for the family of five.
Marino contends Nathanson's studies are "not valid."
But Nathanson defends his work, calling it nearly impossible to conduct traditional scientific studies in controlled groups with very ill children from abroad.
And critics provoke his scorn. "They don't give a damn about the children," he says. "They are interested in dolphins in captivity. That's their issue."
Fighting dolphin therapy is not popular, activists admit.
"It is very difficult for us on the other side, who know the potential harm to animals and children alike, to appear to be denying treatment to autistic and Down syndrome children," says Rector, founder of Dolphin Freedom. "But that's not what this is about."
"This is about false advertising."
Dolphins Plus was the U.S. innovator in swimming with the dolphins for recreation, the first to make money from tourists. Rick Borguss, who took his first such swim in 1971, started the company with his father in 1984. Their idea signaled the growth of an industry, along with the growth of regulations from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Then, in 1994, Mirage Resorts of Las Vegas successfully challenged the agency in court.
The resort claimed the Fisheries Service could not deny it a permit for its own dolphin swim program. A federal judge agreed, denying agency jurisdiction over captive dolphins. And Congress removed the agency, in charge of conserving the nation's marine resources, from regulating dolphin programs.
Last September, Agriculture Department inspectors proposed guidelines requiring an operator to use a trainer, report injuries and limit how long dolphins can work. However, their enforcement effort was derailed after criticism of that the guidelines treated large and small parks alike.
Now Rector sees no recourse for abuses. "Right now," he says, "you've got the fox watching the hen house and making big money doing it."
Investigators at Fisheries Service completed a study in 1994 that found dolphins often turned sexual and aggressive if not strictly monitored by trainers. Some would bite, body slam or try to mount swimmers - often targeting women and children, according to Trevor Spradlin, a biologist who helped conduct the study.
Human contact, the biologist insists, disrupts dolphins' natural behavior.