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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - As thousands of tourists prepare to dive in and swim with dolphins this summer, animals experts are appealing to them to ask themselves one question: does the dolphin want to swim with you?
Frolicking with dolphins -- in the wild and in captivity -- has become increasingly popular, with a sharp rise in the number of tour operators cashing in on the fascination with the intelligent aquatic mammal that always seems to be smiling.
Harassing wild dolphins or other marine mammals is illegal under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act but the wild dolphin adventure business is booming in other countries eager to lure tourist dollars in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Trevor Spradlin, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said there are no estimates for how many wild dolphin adventure operators there are in the United States or internationally.
But he said the fad has skyrocketed since the late 1980s when the first commercial swim with dolphin programs appeared in the Florida Keys.
"Around the same time that captive (swim with dolphin) programs were developing, the ones in the wild were developing in the wild, too ... it became a trend," Spradlin said.
These programs have come under heavy criticism from animal rights activists who claim "swim with dolphin" attractions in the wild are cruel and even harmful. Well-meaning swimmers can drive dolphins out of their feeding and resting areas.
"I totally understand why people want to be close to them, but we're basically loving them to death," said Naomi Rose, a dolphin biologist from the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
The U.S.-based Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums suggests swimming with captive dolphins at marine and theme parks as a legal alternative to wild dolphin encounters.
But animal advocates say captive dolphin encounters can be stressful for dolphins and their "smiles" can be deceptive.
"People need to literally go beneath a dolphin's smile because dolphins will smile even if they are sick, dying, or dead," said Dr. Toni Frohoff, a marine biologist who has specialized in dolphin research and communication.
Marine park operators counter that it is impossible to prove dolphins are under any more stress when meeting people and that encounters with captive dolphins educate the public about marine mammals in a safe environment.
"The privilege of seeing one of these animals engenders a kind of respect that might not be there otherwise," said Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for Busch Entertainment Corp., the company that runs the SeaWorld parks in the United States.
There are benefits to bringing people and animals together in the right environment, Spradlin said.
"Wildlife viewing is a very important conservation tool, but there's a fine line between observation and interaction," he said.