Why it’s not ok to feed dolphins

Feeding wild dolphins has been shown to negatively alter dolphins’ behaviour, reduce maternal care for calves, cause aggression among dolphins, reduce their home range, and increase the risk of injury to dolphins from boat strikes and entanglements.

Source Andy Toots Unsplash

What are dolphin feeding programs?

Imagine you’re swimming in the wild, going about your day with your pod, when a person encourages you to come to the shore and offers you a meal, no strings attached. It might seem like an offer too good to resist. But what if the free meal comes with unintended consequences?

That’s the scenario faced by wild dolphins in dolphin feeding programs. These programs involve enticing dolphins with food, slowly getting them accustomed to human presence, and in time dependent on humans. It’s dangerous because it entices wild dolphins into a system that significantly disrupts their natural way of life.

Source lkonya via Getty Images

Why can tours offer experiences to hand feed dolphins?

It is illegal for members of the public to hand feed dolphins in Australia – except at four sites in Queensland and Western Australia.

While the Commonwealth and State governments recognise that there are environmental, health and safety concerns associated with feeding dolphins, the tourism sites are exempt because they operate under existing programs.

As their authorisation comes from relevant state issued permits or legislation, it is up to people to pledge not to participate in this harmful practice.

Source Gabor Kovacs Photography

Dolphins beg for food

Feeding wild dolphins has led to dolphins exhibiting unnatural behaviours.  Instead of hunting and roaming the open seas, they’ve been known to patrol the waters close to boats, scavenging for leftovers, and begging for food.[1] In Bunbury and Monkey Mia Western Australia, dolphins who are fed now approach boats and beg for food.[2] Remember, every tossed treat encourages this pattern, robbing them of their inherent, wild nature.

Source ChristianB via Getty Images

Impacts the mother and calf bond

Research shows that when dolphins are fed by humans, they pay less attention to their offspring. These young dolphins spend less time in the protective space beneath their mother’s belly, a position typically associated with infant care, and instead are found more often at a distance from their mothers. This change in behaviour suggests that human feeding can unintentionally disrupt the natural mother-calf bonding process in dolphins.[3] In Bunbury Western Australia, where you can feed wild dolphins, hand-fed mothers have half the reproductive success of non hand-fed mothers. Researchers warn, “…food-provisioning has the potential to… exacerbate the risk for this population to decline”. [4]

Source Elsvander Gun via Getty Images Signature

Reduces dolphins' home range

Instead of swimming far and wide, hand fed dolphins linger close to the feeding sites, waiting for handouts.  Research shows their world becomes significantly smaller, limiting where they socialise and feed. It’s not just these fed dolphins who are affected. Their young ones, although not fed directly, end up inheriting this confined lifestyle, learning to stay within these restricted boundaries as they mirror their mother’s behaviour. This reliance on hand-fed fish is more than just a change in diet; it’s a shift that carries potential risks to their social dynamics and even survival. After all, a smaller world is not necessarily a safer one. [5]

Source Lkonya via Getty Images

Increases risk of injury to dolphins

Problematic behaviours, particularly begging, increases the risk of dolphins being harmed by a boat strike or fishing gear.[6] In Perth, Western Australia, wild dolphins conditioned to take food from humans have higher incidences of boat strike injury and entanglement in fishing gear compared to dolphins not conditioned to take food from humans.[7]

Source Terrababy via Getty Images Signature

Increases pressure on their survival after extreme weather events

Smaller home ranges means the dolphins who are home fed have a constrained ability to respond to ecological changes. This was observed following a severe marine heatwave in 2011. The scientists who studied the impact of this event say in their paper that wild dolphin feeding “… has marked impacts on dolphin activity, ranging behaviour and habitat use, with long-lasting maternal effects, thereby constraining the provisioned dolphin’s ability to respond to dramatic ecological changes caused by extreme climate events.” [8]

Source Xurzon via Getty Images

Increases aggression

Feeding wild dolphins can also cause aggressive behaviour. [9] This is especially shown in male dolphins, who displayed elevated aggression towards dolphins and humans.[10]

Source Andrea Izzotti via Getty Images

What can you do to help?

By taking our pledge not to hand feed dolphins, you can help protect these amazing animals and their natural habitats. In addition to signing the pledge, there are many ways you can support dolphin conservation:

If you want to observe dolphins in their natural habitat, only take part in responsible ecotourism activities. Ensure these tourism providers only offer encounters with dolphins who are truly wild and free, and follow the local distancing requirements. These tours are designed to minimise any negative impacts on dolphins and their natural habitats and focus on education and conservation. If you are experiencing dolphins in Australia, check out our Ethical Tourism Guide.

If you see people hand feeding dolphins or engaging in other harmful activities in the wild, report them to the appropriate authorities. This will help to prevent future harm to dolphins and their natural habitats.

Spread the word about the importance of not hand feeding dolphins and engaging with them through responsible tourism providers. Encourage others to take the pledge and make a difference in protecting these amazing mammals.

Source J Knaupe via Getty Images

Our campaign to help Minjerribah Island's dolphins

Our dynamic awareness campaign on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke) Island worked wonders - ranges report people are no longer feeding the wild dolphins! And the best part? These dolphins are now safe from being touched and fed by people, are free from social disruptions, and aggression spikes.

Check out an example of our awareness ads below, which are running on the ferry to the island.

If you love dolphins – the best thing you can do is interact with them where they are genuinely wild and free.