Why swim with a real dolphin when you can swim with a robot instead?

"Captive animal experiences" are apparently a major draw of some marine parks — the opportunity for a human to swim in a tank alongside some majestic (albeit captured) aquatic creatures. While I'm sure it's incredible experience to splash around next to Flipper, it also presents some moral quandaries. Namely, that it's kinda fucked up to capture a sentient creature just so other sentient creatures can treat it like a bath toy.

This sparked an idea with David Fennell, an ecotourism researcher at Brock University in Ontario. Fennell recently published a new study titled, "Animatronic dolphins as the new authentic? posthuman reflections of 'light' tourism on the move," in which he explores how people might feel about more cruelty-free options, such as robot dolphins. From the abstract:

Marine parks have successfully positioned themselves as harbingers of 'once in a lifetime' experiences for visitors motivated to get close, embodied experiences with dolphins and other cetaceans. Captive animal venues have amplified these experiences by expanding their programs to include 'fake' encounters with robotic (animatronic) animals as well as conventional wild encounters. This study sought to investigate the choices of university students on the opportunity to experience either a live swim-with-dolphin tour or an animatronic tour, and if their choices remained stable or changed after an intervention. Results indicate that the intervention strategy significantly impacted students' choices, inducing them to later choose the animatronic dolphin experience. The paper tests our conceptions about what is real and artificial in charting a path for the future of responsible and sustainable tourism.

Fennell's sample size is (incredibly) small, but in his mostly-anecdotal experience, he does point out that most people would indeed be happy exploring a pool next to a robo-dolphin, like this $26 million dollar animatronic puppet from Edge Innovations.

Of course, even if we did replace all animalistic close encounters with robots, there would still be a question of whether those robots were capable of dreaming about electric sheep. Or if this whole thing is just a PR stunt for a new Westworld prequel.

Would you swim with a robot dolphin? [Marina Wang / Hakai Magazine]

Animatronic dolphins as the new authentic? posthuman reflections of 'light' tourism on the move [David A. Fennell / The Journal of Ecotourism]