Swim with Dolphins
Wilderness Tours, Spiritual Awakening, Emotional Healing

Cognitively Challenged

Can dolphin-human interactions with cognitively challenged children change the course of their lives?

Dolphin-Human Interaction Interventions begun in the 1950s with the research of Dr. Lilly (1) a neuroscientist who believed that dolphins are so intelligent they should have citizenship rights. His research was carried forward by Dr. Betsy Smith (2/3), an educational anthropologist and associate professor at Florida International University and by Dr. Nathanson (4/5), psychologist, researcher and professor at the same University. Nathanson’s research spanned 20 years but was specifically poignant between 1988 and 1997 when he conducted dolphin-human interaction interventions with children who had over 40 different diagnoses – some of them with multiple disabilities, from 39 different countries. Since then programs involving dolphin-human interactions have sprung up all over the world including Europe, the Middle East, Asia, USA, the Caribbean, Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China, Bahamas and in South America.

Over fifteen years ago Angie Gullan initiated Dolphin Research and Wild Dolphin Swim experiences in the bay of Ponto D’Ouro with a variety of therapists who have diverse orientations. Angie and her team insist on a code of ethics when swimming with the dolphins that ensure their protection and has worked hard to make the bay of Ponto, where the dolphins live, a Partially Protected Marine Reserve.

Mandy Young, EcoPsychologist begun her dolphin-human interaction work there in 2002 with pregnant women, those dealing with bereavement and divorce, and more currently with people dealing with cancer, phantom pain from traumatic amputations, depression and with children with special needs. Young straddles two professions: as a Psychotherapist journeying with people of all ages towards emotional wellbeing and good relationships, and as a Researcher and Conservationist spending time with wild animals, dolphins and tribal people. She believes good mental health and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. Young works together with Angie and Toni Frohoff (6), co-author of Dolphin Mysteries (2011) who has over twenty years of research experience in dolphin-human interactions.

Dolphin-Human Interaction Interventions are supported by several theories: the echolocation capabilities of dolphins that have a soothing and intuitive impact on those they chose to engage with; the joy and acceptance dolphin encounters generate within dolphin swim participants that enhances their self-worth, the stimulation of their immune system and hope for the future; the centuries-old knowledge that dolphins are drawn to those who need help; and the benefit of being in water.

On land our brains are occupied with calculating and computing the effects of gravity and organizing ways of keeping the body upright and many handicapped children are in wheel chairs or struggle to move with ease, in the water they are free of these challenges. The French obstetrician, Michel Odent (7), author of Water and Sexuality believes we begin life surrounded by water when in the womb which gives us our first sense of a ‘primal skin’. He suggests we have a phylogenetic memory based on aquatic links to our past, so there is a natural affiliation for most children to feel comfortable in water.

Some of the research findings of Smith (2/3), Nathanson (4/5), Odent (7) and others is that when children swim with dolphins they are less anxious and more teachable, their ability to pay attention increases by 500%. Language, speech, gross motor, and fine motor functioning improves among children with various disabilities in a more effective way than with other more conventional speech or physical therapy programs. The improvements were sustained a year later according to Nathanson and found to be more effective than other pet-interventions because of the play repertoire of dolphins and their intuitive, ‘sixth sense’ capabilities.

A research review in 2012 entitled Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: Claims versus Evidence by Fiksdal, Houlihan, and Barnes (8) declare much research to date claiming swimming with dolphins is therapeutic and beneficial for children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, physical disabilities, and other psychological disorders are methodologically flawed by inadequate measurements of certain behavioral and emotional concepts; by demand characteristics, and the lack of a control group.

It is important when making healing claims that impact people’s expectations and their ‘pocket’ that there is a certain amount of scientific rigour that validates those claims, but when dealing with humans, dolphins, relationships and integration – right brain processes of emotion, intuition and integration, these concepts are not easily measure with left brain scientific logic and proof that divides and compartmentalizes.  In the end what you believe is most often convinced by what the people involved have to say: the parents of autistic, developmentally delayed or handicapped children, or those who are dealing with depression, cancer or life in general that have had the privilege of interacting with wild, free-swimming dolphins.


  1. Frohoff, T & Peterson, P. (2003). Towards a Cetacean Nation. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco pp.77-83
  2. A. McKinney, D. Dustin, and R. Wolff, “The promise of dolphin-assisted therapy,” Parks and Recreation, vol. 36, pp. 46–50, 2001.
  3. L. Marino and S. O. Lilienfeld, “Dolphin-assisted therapy for autism and other developmental disorders: a dangerous fad,” American Psychological Association, vol. 33, pp. 2–3, 2007.
  4. D. E. Nathanson, D. de Castro, H. Friend, and M. McMahon, “Effectiveness of short-term dolphin-assisted therapy for children with severe disabilities,” Anthrozoos, vol. 10, no. 2-3, pp. 90–100, 1997.
  5. D. E. Nathanson, “Long-term effectiveness of dolphin-assisted therapy for children with severe disabilities,” Anthrozoos, vol.11, no. 1, pp. 22–32, 1998.
  6. Frohoff, T & Dudzinski, K. (2011). Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication. Yale University Press, New Haven and London
  7. Odent, M. (1990). Water and Sexuality. Penguin Books, Arkana.
  8. Britta L. Fiksdal, Daniel Houlihan, & Aaron C. Barnes (2012). Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: Claims versus Evidence. Autism Research and Treatment Volume 2012, Article ID 839792, 7 pages. Hindawi Publishing Corporation