Dolphin Assisted Birth: Chumming the Waters with Good Intentions

by • May 29, 2013 • Dolphin News, Dolphin Science, General, Personal MusingsComments Off15020

The Charlotte Observer reported yesterday on a couple headed to Hawaii with the plan of giving birth in the open ocean in the presence of wild dolphins. The interwebs’ WTF-detector went into immediate overdrive, chiding the couple for what was dubbed “one of the worst natural birthing ideas anyone has ever had.”

To be fair to the young couple, this is hardly a new idea. The Sirius Institute – which is purportedly working with the couple – has been offering dolphin assisted births for years, and was even featured in a Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t episode from 2008, when another couple headed to Hawaii to attempt their own open ocean birth. To the best of my knowledge, no human has even given birth in the presence of wild dolphins in the open ocean. However, there are rumors of a (now defunct?) dolphin birthing facility in the Black Sea and stories of people who have given birth in dolphin facilities in Egypt. The Sirius Institute and other dolphin assisted birth proponents make fantastical claims that babies born in the presence of dolphins will show anything from having larger brains to being ambidextrous. For anyone with a soft spot for skepticism, these claims are highly suspect, and it’s not a big leap from raising an eyebrow to opening mocking those with dolphin-birth aspirations.

But I have had personal contact with a handful of people who reached out to my research organization asking for info about the possibility of giving birth near/with the wild spotted dolphins we study in the Bahamas, and after a few conversations with these folks, I was pleasantly surprised at how entirely reasonable their intentions were. Fortunately, I was able to offer them some sound advice as to why dolphin assisted birth in the open ocean is a bad idea. The interwebs has been offering its own brand of “advice” to the young couple, mostly citing examples of the sometimes aggressive behavior seen in dolphins as reasons not to attempt a dolphin assisted birth. Some have suggested that dolphins have been known to “rape” each other and human swimmers (which is wrong – more on that here) which is why they’d make terrible midwives. In reality, with a handful of exceptions, wild dolphins rarely have any contact with human beings, so the  aggression/rape/danger issue is really a non-issue. Only a handful of cases of wild dolphins – almost exclusively those “lone-sociable” dolphins that seek out the company of human swimmers – have been known to interact aggressively with human swimmers. But for the most part, wild dolphins simply ignore humans. Anyone trying to coax wild dolphins to attend a birth is almost certainly going to be facing a scenario where the dolphins have absolutely no interest in even approaching them, let alone hanging around until the baby arrives.

Here are two excellent reasons why it is a bad idea to want to be involved in dolphin assisted birth in the open ocean:

1) Giving birth in the open ocean means that you are less likely to have access to trained medical professionals and medical equipment that will be able to help in the event that something goes wrong with the birth. While it is entirely possible to mitigate these risks by stowing medical equipment and an army of obstetricians, midwives, and doulas on a nearby boat, swimming in the open ocean while giving birth certainly brings with it a higher risk of complications than, for example, giving birth in a hospital or birthing clinic. So whatever benefits you think might exist due to the baby being born in the open ocean need to be balanced with the risk you are assuming on behalf of your unborn child by being so far away from the proper resources needed for a safe birth.

2) The ocean has sharks in it. Sharks are attracted to things like blood, body fluids, and the thrashing around of animals in distress (i.e., everything that goes along with the birthing process). By swimming in the open ocean while leaking blood, you are essentially chumming the waters. This is not a joke. While the jury is still out as to the extent to which sharks are attracted by human blood, there is a very real risk that they are. Sharks rarely attack people, but if you happen to be attempting a water birth in an area where some of the more dangerous species are lurking (e.g., bull sharks, tiger sharks, great white sharks), there is a risk that the body fluids released during the birthing process will increase the chances that these large predators will come by to investigate, and might just decide to take a bite of you or your newborn. It is not the case that you won’t find sharks in areas where dolphins live. Dolphins live in the exact same waters as most shark species, and spend a large part of their day looking out for and avoiding sharks. But they are not always successful. Wild dolphins are often covered in scars from (unsuccessful) shark attacks, which is a testament to how often they interact with them. And young dolphins are especially vulnerable to shark attacks, with dolphin calf mortality rates quite high for the first year of life – likely a direct result of small, slow swimming calves making easy targets for sharks (see above pic). Considering how vulnerable and small and bad at swimming a human newborn is, it cannot possibly be anything other than a really terrible idea to want to put your newborn’s life at risk by having her/him enter the world in waters that might be teeming with hungry sharks that have been attracted by the body fluids released during the birthing process. To make this point even more vividly, I include below a picture of a bucket of chum (used specifically to attract sharks):

And a human placenta:

So please, if you are considering giving birth in the open ocean, just remember the keyword “chum,” and consider the serious risks to both your and your newborn.

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