Who wants to swim with robot dolphins? More people than you may think.

Who wants to swim with robot dolphins? More people than you may think.

This article was originally featured on Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

Kindergarteners in San Jose, California are seated at the edge of an outdoor swimming pool when a two-meter-long mass appears. Water dripping from its smooth gray skin reveals itself. The mass stops, then enthusiastically nods and splashes the children, causing their jaws to drop in awe. The only sign that this robot is not a dolphin is a thin, barely perceptible cord that runs from its navel to the control panel nearby.

Delle is a prototype animatronic Dolphin currently in testing in San Jose. It has become a media sensation because of its hyperrealistic features. Created by Edge Innovations–the Hollywood special effects company behind the killer whale in Free Willy, the snake in Anaconda, and the dolphin in Flipper–Delle was designed to revolutionize traditional captive animal demonstrations. The idea was born when three Chinese aquariums approached Edge Innovations to use robots instead of live animals. However, the project has been a success and has been embraced by those who care about the welfare of cetaceans kept in captivity.

Roger Holzberg is the user experience designer behind Delle. He says that his team plans to use robots to preserve and educate the attraction and education of swimming with dolphins, including petting them and swimming with them. Cetaceans in captivity are more susceptible to skin problems and depression. They also have a shorter life expectancy.

But Delle’s existence raises the question: If you had to choose, would you choose a fake dolphin or a real one?

A new study by David Fennell (an ecotourism researcher at Brock University, Ontario) shows that although people initially find the prospect and idea of a robot less appealing than they think, they can quickly change their minds.

Fennell asked 15 student who were part his tourism and animal ethics course if they would rather swim with an animatronic dolphin than a live one. Even among this small group of well-informed people, 10 of the students said that they’d prefer the live dolphin encounter because of the allure of connecting with a wild animal. Fennell said that many people feel compelled to interact live with dolphins, even though they are aware of the cruelty done to them in captivity.

When people see others enjoying captive animal encounters they say that it is a normative experience. It makes them more likely to believe the activity is acceptable despite their reservations.

But after showing his students both the documentary Lolita – Slave to Entertainment , that documents the life and death of Lolita, a captive killer Whale at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida, as well as a promotional video for Delle by Edge Innovations, most of the students changed their minds.

“It’s quite telling that nine of the 10 had made that radical change to move from the live experience to the animatronic experience,” Fennell says. “That’s the power and potential of education again, ?”

Interestingly, Fennell’s students decided to see the animatronic dolphin as an experience, and not just accept it as a cybernetic replacement.

Carl Cater is an expert in adventure tourism and ecotourism at Swansea University, Wales. He says that replacing live dolphins with robots in captivity is a net benefit. However, he is concerned that aquarium visitors might be misled into believing that wild dolphins are friendly and approachable as their replicas. Holzberg believes that aquariums should make it clear that wild dolphins are not to be touched in their educational programming.

Fennell believes that the upcoming spread of robotic stand-ins for aquariums around the globe is part of redefining our relationship to wildlife. He believes that this futuristic type of animal encounter is necessary to be ethical tourists.

This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine, and is republished here with permission.

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