The following is a guest post written by Jill Austin. Ms. Austin is an associate director of marketing in the Florida office of The Nature Conservancy. She has worked with the media and written about Florida for more than a decade and thanks James Byrne for sharing this personal story about why it is so important to protect nature.

Despite his fear, 3 1/2 year old Diego Byrne entered the salt water in his tiny life vest and did what his counselor told him to do. Through his tears, he touched the dolphin.

“He was apprehensive and nervous,” said his dad, James Byrne, The Nature Conservancy’s marine science program manager for Florida and the Caribbean. “He likes to get in the water usually, but he was scared.”

It was Day One of a five-day family therapy camp and Diego, who has Down syndrome, had spent the morning indoors in a personalized therapy session specifically designed for children with special needs. After lunch, it was time to reinforce the therapy through interaction with the dolphins.

Even as Diego squirmed in the arms of his counselor and the dolphins sliced the water around him, James could tell something special was happening.

“Normally when he is scared he won’t do anything, he just freezes,” James said. “He was overwhelmed, but he did reach out like they told him to.”

As Diego fought his fears, neither he nor his family could have known what was in store: that Diego would soon be riding through the water hanging on to a dolphin fin, smiling and laughing as never before. And, he would leave the camp and go back to his normal routine remarkably different.

“It’s changed him,” James said. “Before, he wasn’t vocalizing. We go to the chiropractor a couple of times a week to relieve his earaches and he would always cry before we even got there. Now he walks right in, smiling, and says ‘ear’ and ‘goodbye’ when we leave. The doctor’s staff couldn’t believe it either.”

An increasing number of studies clearly show that kids who spend time outdoors are happier, healthier and smarter. And it’s not just children who benefit from nature: Studies show hospital stays are shorter when patients look out at trees versus brick walls, blood pressure drops when patients watch fish in an aquarium, and pets aid in heart attack recovery.

The benefits of dolphin therapy are also widely known, with extraordinary breakthroughs documented. At the camp where Diego was transformed, therapy has a deep personal meaning for its owners. Island Dolphin Care is a nonprofit created by a mom, Deena Hoagland, who experienced the recovery of her own son Joe from a stroke at the age of three when he began swimming with dolphins. Joe now teaches at the Key Largo camp that provides dolphin-assisted therapy to children and their families from all over the world.

“There are so many therapeutic metaphors with animals,” said Deena Hoagland, a trained psychotherapist who has used nature in her teachings for the last 30 years. “Dolphins create metaphors all day long and show how important play is and laughter is. No doctor ever says you need a dose of laughter every day, but you do.”

James said dolphins behave differently around children and even more differently around disabled children. “I think because of their echolocation ability they picture the whole person and they can sense things are different,” he said.

In his underwater work for The Nature Conservancy, James encounters dolphins while checking on staghorn and elkhorn coral nurseries and conducting coral reef assessments. Did the experience with Diego change his perspective? “Completely,” he said. “Now when they swim up, I feel like they watch what we are doing and they are observing us as much as we are observing them.”

He feels a bit like he is giving back through his work for The Nature Conservancy. “We don’t do a whole lot directly with dolphins, but they are a component of the whole marine ecosystem we are working to protect,” he said.

Diego’s second-day encounter with the dolphins was completely different from the first, and by the third “he was going for it,” James said, “he couldn’t wait to get out there.”

Diego opens up more now, vocalizes more, and isn’t as reserved with new people. And it looks like his nature nurturing will continue. “Because of me, my family has always walked and hiked in nature,” James explained, “but it’s neat because now Diego is picking it up. We went to the beach the other day and he went right for the mask to go look in the water and snorkel.”

(Image: Diego Byrne joyfully interacts with two dolphins at a camp run by Island Dolphin Care. Image credit: © Island Dolphin Care.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Glad to see the nature conservatory supporting the dolphin capture business. I will be “unfriending” this page. I thought you had your priorities in line with “conserving nature” but you clearly do not!

  2. This is one of my favorite stories on Cool Green Science. Thanks for sharing. Heart warming.

  3. Dogs have been bred to be “pets” – dolphins are meant to be “wild”. From the dolphins point of view, this was NOT a good three-day encounter!

    Put Diego in a room full of puppies – they’ll all enjoy it!

  4. How absolutely tragic that a so called green, environmental group would publish such nonsense. It is terrible propaganda like this that keeps the Taiji dolphin slaughter alive. Please reconsider your choices and buy a book on dolphins! These are sentient, self-aware beings that man has no right to imprison.
    This page is a real disappointment to this ocean conservationist.

  5. So much those kids need a therapy, so much need those dolphins the ocean!!!!

  6. So much these kids need therapy, so much need those dolphins the ocean!!!

  7. Nature conservancy, “Protects Nature” keeping dolphins in captivity is to “protect”? Dolphin Assisted Therapy is not known to “make children with Down Syndrome” miraculously better. Until that day you kept your child guarded inside his own world until you decided to take him out and accept him as a real child that he is. Maybe you should try to spend more time with him doing outdoors things. Please don’t say that Dolphins cured him. You did, when you decided to allow him do things that children do. Have fun in a pool and swim! I will no longer buy anything that will benefit your organization and will remove my name from your list. Open your eyes. Protecting Nature. Preserving life …of dolphins in captivity. WTG!~

  8. Nature Conservancy,

    I’ve always been a fan, but you all sure didn’t do your due diligence on this piece. Have you seen the Academy Award winning documentary, The Cove? Are you familiar with the research of Dr. Lori Marino at Emory University? Her 2007 study, “Dolphin Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions” shows that DAT is nothing more than a high-priced “feel good” completely devoid of any scientifically validated outcomes. Additionally, many of the dolphins used for DAT have been taken from their homes in the ocean. Captivity leads to a variety of poor physical and mental health outcomes in dolphins – ranging from infections and ulcers to “captive dolphin depressive syndrome” and even death. The lifespan of dolphins in captivity is markedly shorter than their peers who swim freely in the oceans. For an organization whose motto is “Protecting Nature, Preserving Life,” you really missed the mark this time Nature Conservancy. I hope you will take the time to watch The Cove and do a little research on the impact of captivity on dolphins and then revisit this topic. The dolphins need your support.,_High_Prices/

  9. It is sad that they (people) feel the need to use of a dolphin for whatever their needs are. Those are wild animals and the cruelness of keeping them captive for something that doesnt work is heartbreaking…As Marian wrote “from the dolphins point of view, this was NOT a good three-day encounter!” Barb also wrote “it wasnt the dolphins that helped it was the father that was with his child, it had nothing to do with the swimming… How sad for the DOLPHINS that a earth and Nature conservancy group have promoted prison terms for these majestic animals!..

  10. Oh, how sad you’ve made me Nature Conservatory. Once I thought your aims were noble; I was stupid. No more dollars to you, but to those who would educate others about your shallow and hurtful games. Your “science” is unsound. Your reporting is shallow in a time where more provocation of real thought is in demand. Give me (and my finned friends a break).

  11. As a person who has spent almost 20 years working with adults and children with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses, I have seen first hand the benefits of animal assisted therapies. However I would NEVER recommend someone do therapy with wild animals. Horses and dogs have been domesticated for centuries and dolphins have not. Horses and dogs can live long lives in captivity. Dolphins cannot. This makes no sense. I am saddened that The Nature Conservancy found dolphin therapy at all related to conserving nature.

  12. Leave the dolphins alone.
    This concept is screwed up, makes me sick and doesnt work at all.
    This article should be removed immediately and dolphins should roam free!

  13. Dolphins are too stressed in captivity to be able to do anything to help. This is a proven fact. And what has happened here is a farse. “Nature Conservative my A**!!
    Try returning the dolphins to the wild where they belong and let the kid experience that. Thats whats real. Not this!! Plus the kid can grow up knowing that he wasnt apart of an innocent mammals death.

  14. I’m extremely surprised that THE Nature Conservancy would condone an industry that keeps animals out of their habitat.
    Dolphins are kind, intelligent creatures, but we’re better off watching them in the ocean, not in swimming pools.

  15. I have always followed the Nature Conservancy, Until Now. Dolphin assisted Therapies are just another way to line the pockets of large corporations by bilking desperate families out of hard earned monies in the hope of some kind of miracle. I am very disappointed that you would even consider publishing this drivel and will have a hard time taking anything posted by you serious in the future.

  16. I am the author of two peer-reviewed papers analyzing dolphin assisted therapy. It is with great dismay that I need to point out the inaccuracies in this piece. First, the author claims that “the benefits of dolphin therapy are widely known”. In fact, THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE THAT DOLPHIN ASSISTED THERAPY HAS ANY THERAPEUTIC VALUE. We have shown that dolphin therapy is based on seriously flawed concepts and methods that provide no support for it as a valid long-term treatment for either psychological or physiological ailments. Second, the idea that dolphins “behave differently” or are especially sensitive to children or people with ailments has not been demonstrated. In fact, to the contrary, many people are injured by captive dolphins during dolphin assisted therapy. The author of this piece neglects to mention the considerable risks associated with swimming with captive dolphins. Please remember that captive dolphins are still wild dolphins and they are prone to hyper aggression because they have been confined and traumatized by the experience of captivity.

    In short, I have no doubt that many children like the ones described in this piece enjoy swimming and interacting with dolphins. It may put a smile on their face. But please don’t mistake this for real therapy and do not neglect other empirically validated therapies with pseudoscience. Dolphin assisted therapy is recreation. Nothing more.

    Furthermore, it is disappointing that The Nature Conservancy would encourage this kind of unvalidated activity that also adds to the continued exploitation of dolphins – as well as people.

    Thanks for your time.

  17. I am glad the children are benefiting from their captive dolphin contact. But wouldn’t it be more compassionate to the dolphins to allow them to visit the children with special needs in the wild? I know they would respond, and this has been documented time and time again, where dolphins reach out to humans in need. But, keeping them captive for human needs is not compassionate or loving or even morally right. I am not against the therapy, which I do believe is beneficial to those with special needs. I am against the treatment of dolphins/whales that should roam the seas in freedom, being held captive under duress (admit it, they are in small concrete tanks forced to go around in circles, do tricks, be at human’s whim, to live their lives out in captivity, without their own pods in open seas, and are forced to eat dead fish or starve). When they were captured in the wild, they did not have a choice. Their whole families were destroyed, and they were penned to begin the slow painful process of training. Read what the trainers in Taiji and other captive ports do to these wonderful intelligent animals before they are considered worthy to be shipped off to another country to serve their lives in slavery. I am sorry, but I am telling this because it is the truth. I am tired of the cover ups that persist in maintaining this inhumane practice for the “benefit of man”.

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