How Does Contact with Wild Dolphins Impact Our Wellbeing and Connection with Nature?

This post comes to us from Rachel Yerbury, winner of the Student Poster Award at the 2018 ISAZ Conference in Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Rachel for sharing her award-winning work with Becoming an Anthrozoologist and our readers.


By Rachel Yerbury

Interactions with non-human animals have been widely studied and shown to have positive impacts on human wellbeing  (Myers & Saunders, 2002; Verbeek & de Waal, 2002; Vining, 2003). Interactions with animals can also nurture people’s connections with nature (Myers & Saunders, 2002; Verbeek & de Waal, 2002; Vining, 2003). Finally, contact with animals may help humans feel emotionally connected to other beings and help overcome feelings of isolation (Kellert, 1996).

In particular, cetaceans (a particular type of marine mammal), including dolphins, have a long history of interaction and attachment with humans (Neil, 2002; Orams, 1997b). Humans commonly seek out encounters with dolphins through leisure, including through tourism (Yerbury & Boyd, 2018). These human-dolphin interactions may elevate positive emotions (Birtles, Valentine, Curnock, Arnold, & Dunstan, 2002; Cloke & Perkins, 2005; Curtin, 2006; DeMares, 2000; Jarvis, 2000; Milstein, 2008), reduce anxiety (Webb & Drummond, 2001) improve nature relatedness (Besio, Johnston, & Longhurst, 2008; Wiener, 2013) and encourage conservation behaviours (e.g. Kortenkamp & Moore, 2001; Mayes, Dyer, & Richins, 2004; Orams, 1997a; Zeppel, 2008; Zeppel & Muloin, 2008).  However, a key question about human-dolphin interactions remains, and that is how and why do interactions with dolphins affect human wellbeing?

The Study

In a recent study, my collaborator, Dr. Bill Boyd, and I set out to explore the phenomena of human-dolphin interactions and to see how such interactions contribute to human wellbeing. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 8 people (5 females and 3 males). These participants had all had contact with wild dolphins in varying degrees and in varying situations. The  eight interview narratives were transcribed into Nvivo11 for Mac and we used Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to identify concept clusters and themes to help make sense of the human experience of the phenomena.

What We Found

The narratives and themes diverged individually, but the dominant theme was Relationship and Connectedness. This main theme included subthemes such as; connection with non-human animals in general, ascribing human characteristics to animals, connection with nature in general, experiencing closeness and proximity to the dolphin thorough eye contact or physical touch and the desire to protect or help dolphins.

Participants expressed strong emotional connections to the dolphins, and described these connections as being relevant to their senses of wellbeing. Participants contextualized these experiences through a lifelong and ongoing connection with nature and animals; in many cases this connection spurred a sense of responsibility and action towards nature and animals. These results were published in a recent edition of Anthrozoös (Yerbury & Boyd, 2018a).

speech bubbles

Some of the responses from the participants are shown above.


Above is an Nvivo word cloud which shows the commonly used words in the narratives.

What These Findings Say About Human-Dolphin Interactions

These findings suggest that people can develop strong and personally important connections with wild animals such as dolphins. (Chawla, 1998; Milligan & Bingley, 2007). As relationships and emotional connection are two important factors for human wellbeing (Seligman, 2011), the results suggest that wild animal contact may fulfill some of the human needs for connection and relationships and in turn contribute to wellbeing. While this study considered the interaction from the human point of view, it is also important to look at the effects of the interactions on wild dolphins, to ensure the rights and wellbeing of the dolphins are also respected. For more on this, readers are directed to a chapter we have written that addresses this topic in Wild Animals and Leisure: Rights and Wellbeing (Yerbury & Boyd, 2018b). While it is not appropriate for humans to interfere with wild dolphins, the narratives in this study describe situations where wild dolphins interacted on their own terms with, or were being helped by humans. Therefore, a reciprocal relationship was indicated: if people see themselves as being connected to the natural world and to its animals, they will be more likely to maintain the connection, which includes both experiencing higher wellbeing and also working to protect the natural world and its components.


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Birtles, A., Valentine, P., Curnock, M., Arnold, P., & Dunstan, A. (2002). Incorporating visitor experiences into ecologically sustainable dwarf minke whale tourism in the northern Great Barrier Reef (CRC Reef Research Centre Technical report 42). Retrieved from

Chawla, L. (1998). Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity. The Journal of Environmental Education, 29(3), 11-21. doi:10.1080/00958969809599114

Cloke, P., & Perkins, H. C. (2005). Cetacean performance and tourism in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), 903-924. doi:10.1068/d57j

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Kortenkamp, K. V., & Moore, C. F. (2001). Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism: Moral Reasoning About Ecological Commons Dilemmas. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21(3), 261-272. doi:10.1006/jevp.2001.0205

Mayes, G., Dyer, P., & Richins, H. (2004). Dolphin-human Interaction: Pro-environmental Attitudes, Beliefs and Intended Behaviours and Actions of Participants in Interpretation Programs: A Pilot Study. Annals of Leisure Research, 7(1), 34-53. doi:10.1080/11745398.2004.10600938

Milligan, C., & Bingley, A. (2007). Restorative places or scary spaces? The impact of woodland on the mental well-being of young adults. Health Place, 13(4), 799-811. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2007.01.005

Milstein, T. (2008). When Whales “Speak for Themselves”: Communication as a Mediating force in Wildlife Tourism. Environmental Communication, 2(2), 173-192. doi:10.1080/17524030802141745

Myers, O. E., & Saunders, C. D. (2002). Animals as links toward developing caring relationships with the natural world. In P. H. Kahn & S. Kellert (Eds.), Children and Nature (pp. 153-179). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT press.

Neil, D. T. (2002). Cooperative fishing interactions between Aboriginal Australians and dolphins in eastern Australia. . Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 15(1), 3-18.

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Yerbury, R.M., & Boyd, W.E (2018a). Human–Dolphin Interactions: Relationships, Connections, and the Reinforcement of an Ongoing Nature Relationship. Anthrozoos, 31(4)

Yerbury, R. M., & Boyd, W. E. (2018b). Wild Dolphins, nature and leisure: Whose wellbeing? In N. Carr & J. Young (Eds.), Wild Animals and Leisure: Rights and Wellbeing (pp. 149-164). New York: Routledge.

Zeppel, H. (2008). Education and conservation benefits of marine wildlife tours: Developing free-choice learning experiences. The Journal of Environmental Education, 39(3), 3-18.

Zeppel, H., & Muloin, S. (2008). Conservation Benefits of Interpretation on Marine Wildlife Tours. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 13(4), 280-294. doi:10.1080/10871200802187105

About the Author: Rachel Yerbury is a PhD student at Southern Cross University, who is interested in the intersection between nature and wellbeing. As a counseling psychologist for almost 20 years, Rachel understands that an individual’s wellbeing is made up of many factors, in particular their environment and the interactions and relationships that make up their lives, including interactions with animals. Rachel believes that dolphins in particular are a special part of nature, and can have a positive impact on people who interact with them. Rachel also maintains the importance of respect and care of nature and animals and much of her research interest considers these complex ethical and moral questions.  Rachel lives in Wollongong, NSW, Australia with her beloved husband and two beautiful young adult daughters.

The ISAZ Student Blog is posted quarterly  and each post is authored by a different student member of the International Society for Anthrozoology. Interested in authoring a post? Please see our submissions page for details on how to apply.

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