Yes, yes, I’ve heard it many times: “I used to watch that show Flipper when I was little, and ever since, I’ve been dying to swim with a porpoise. This is our first visit to Abaco (or Florida, or wherever, fill in your destination of choice), and I want to know if there is some way I can do this.” Before you get too wound up, let me share a little story with you.
Being a gynecologist, I see parts of people’s anatomy that, well, the rest of you don’t. (Don’t panic, this is G-rated.) A few years ago I happened to attend to a young woman who had a very peculiar scar on her upper left thigh and groin. I asked if, by some chance, it had been caused by a porpoise. She responded, surprised, “Yes, how did you know?” I explained that I had seen similar markings on a kingfish that my buddy Mr. Bill had caught off of Islamorada in the early 80s. A porpoise had rushed and raked it at boatside, and the markings were very similar.
She laughed, and remarked that her injury had, in fact, also occurred in Islamorada (a little town in the Florida Keys, a bit south of Key Largo.) She was vacationing at Holiday Isle with some girlfriends, and had bumped into a fellow who was a trainer at nearby Theater of the Sea. After a few nights of dancing and rumrunners, they became “romantic,” as often happens in these circumstances. At 3 AM one morning she told her new boyfriend that she had had a fantasy, since childhood, about skinny-dipping with porpoises, and could he make it happen?
Faster than you can say “151,” they snuck into Theater of the Sea, she undressed, and slid into the main tank. Boyfriend released a porpoise from its holding pen into the same tank, and she waited with eager anticipation. “Nothing happened for a moment or so, then something bumped me, really hard, enough to scare me. Then I felt a terrible pain in my groin, and suddenly there was blood everywhere. I could hardly move.”
Boyfriend managed to get Flipper back into his pen, then pulled our girl out of the tank, saw a “whole lot of blood,” and quickly called 911. She was transported to Fisherman’s Hospital in Tavernier, where she was treated for multiple lacerations and blood loss.
Somewhat later I related this to a biologist who was working at the Whitney Marine Laboratory at Marineland, Florida (not far from our home in Ormond Beach). She nodded and explained that porpoises can be very territorial, very aggressive, and very sexual. Their personalities and behaviors are just as varied and complex as those of humans. TV and movies have lead us to believe that porpoises are uniformly docile and friendly, but that is most certainly not the case in the real world, as my patient found out.
The lesson here is simply not to swim with porpoises in the wild; there are substantial risks involved with doing this. There are an increasing number of “dolphin encounters” that offer the opportunity to swim and interact with a trained, captive animal. Don’t confuse this with a wild animal, it’s a whole different kettle of fish!