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Dolphin Encounters Too Close for Cetacean Comfort?

September 05, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

It sounds, at the least, like one of those delightfully off-kilter,only-in-California adventures: Spend the day cruising the ocean, searching for wild dolphins, then jump in and swim with them.

If you're lucky, perhaps you'll play a little dolphin Frisbee (dolphins are reportedly able to throw even better than they catch). Maybe you'll even attempt a little human/dolphin communication like the marine biologists do.

For 30 bucks and six hours of your time, you, too, may commune with the mysterious creatures that some researchers believe to be smarter than humans. Wet suits, masks, snorkels, fins and a modest lunch are also included.

An estimated 650 individuals have participated in such "Dolphin Encounter" weekend cruises that have been offered since June through the fledgling Cetacean Information Center (CIC) based in Rancho Palos Verdes.

But only about half the 21 cruises sponsored by the organization had sighted any dolphins. And on those cruises, the dolphins wouldn't get closer than a few feet to swimmers, according to Sue Schwartzenback, Dolphin Encounter coordinator. As for the Frisbee playing, she said that thus far no dolphins have been engaged in the game, but attributed it more to human forgetfulness (to bring or toss the Frisbees) than to dolphin standoffishness.

A far more serious problem facing the group has been criticism from officials of the American Cetacean Society, the National Marine Fisheries Service (a federal agency) and Marineland. All of these officials question whether the CIC and its cruises may be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Among other things, that law prohibits harassment of dolphins.

But the criticism doesn't seem to bother the all-volunteer, nonprofit CIC, including its 19-year-old founder/executive director Jeffrey Siegel.

A dolphin enthusiast who's been swimming with the same pod of bottle-nosed dolphins for the last six years, Siegel maintains that no harassment of dolphins has been taking place--or will in the future on the group's cruises. He simply writes off the criticism to the fact that his organization is new (it began regular activities this spring and now has about 150 members) and is doing something no other group has done before. He also defends his organization, its sincerity to inform people about dolphins and eventually do research on dolphin behavior and communication.

But if the idea of taking people out on a boat to swim with dolphins is unexpected and somewhat controversial, so is the way Siegel has run his organization (which is headquartered in the side of a hill, inside an old bunker the group leases for a minimal fee from the Coast Guard).

In mid-August, for example, after telling his associates he'd be in the office the next day, Siegel instead left town. When The Times tried to reach him, Schwartzenback responded that he seemed to have taken the group's petty cash and left on a plane for Florida to see about a job training dolphins. However, the next day, Schwartzenback called to say that she had been mistaken; the petty cash had merely been misplaced and Siegel was just taking a leave-of-absence of uncertain duration.

But it's not the inner workings of the organization so much as its potential effects on dolphins and those who swim with them that concern Patricia Warhol, the executive director of the San Pedro-based American Cetacean Society.

"We feel what they (the CIC) are doing is dangerous and possibly illegal," she said. "If you take 25 people who are not accustomed to swimming in the open ocean and you put them in the water, the theory is that they're supposed to play with the dolphins. Dolphins are wild animals. They're not tame. No one knows what a dolphin's going to do. They're generally friendly and generally curious and interested in people, but you simply cannot predict any wild animal's behavior. If you've got people out there swimming without experience with dolphins, I think you're just asking for trouble."

Research, Education Doubts

Warhol, who's known Siegel for several years because of his volunteer work for her organization, also questions the fact that his group bills itself as a research and education organization.

She described Siegel as "a gifted amateur" but said he is hardly qualified to do serious marine research.

"CIC is theoretically a research and education organization, but there's nobody there who's qualified to do valid research," she emphasized. "There's just Jeff, who is 19 years old. He's very enthusiastic. He's had a passion for dolphins for years. He's decided to go from A to Z and skip the stuff in between."

"What we're doing isn't controversial. It's just a lack of information among those organizations," Siegel said in response before he left for Florida. "We have a lifeguard on the boat and we instruct people on how to behave with dolphins, not to hurt them or scare them."

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