Some dolphin enthusiasts even see the mammals in a spiritual way.
"When I met the dolphins for the first time, they were coming right up close to the dock, calling me to join them," says former therapist Joan Ocean, who lives in Hawaii. She swims with wild dolphins nearly every day.
"You're swimming in this blue water," she says. "You move into a meditative state. They seem to accept me as one of the group. It's an amazing sense of peace to swim close like that with the dolphin."
Dolphins can teach humans a great deal about caring, even love, Ocean says. In her view, they are very similar to humans.
Marine biologist Andrew Read has a less rosy view. They may be complex, social and smart, but they are not gentle, Read says.
Read, who has been studying dolphin behavior along the Atlantic coast, has uncovered some of the darker side of the mammals' behavior.
He has proof of dolphins brutally killing other mammals, even young dolphin calves. Scottish researchers first stumbled onto this, finding that dolphins violently attacked porpoises.
Dolphins along the Atlantic coast have engaged in the same kind of murderous behavior, according to Read. He did autopsies of porpoises washed up on the beach and found they had broken ribs, suggesting they had been attacked.
He doesn't yet understand why dolphins kill porpoises. Ocean has a different perspective. "I've swam with the dolphins in 16 different countries, 11 different species of whales and nine different species of dolphins," says Ocean, who leads organized dolphin swims in Hawaii. "I've never seen them indicate any aggression."
In Hawaii, dolphins have been peaceful. The state hasn't recorded any violent incidents involving wild dolphins for years. Elsewhere, though, authorities have had bad experiences with aggressive dolphins.
In the Intracoastal Waterway near Sarasota, Fla., where people swim with dolphins and feed them, the mammals have not been so saintly.
Kim Foy used to swim with dolphins. "I felt like, 'Wow! This is really neat,'" she remembers. "'This is just like Flipper on TV.' I felt really safe."
Her feelings changed one weekend a few years ago. On a family outing, she was frolicking with dolphins. Suddenly she felt a jaw grab her buttocks and pull her under.
She was shocked. "I still think about the pressure of the jaws around my leg and pulling me down," she recalls. "It was a horrible experience." Although she escaped, the dolphin bite was deep, requiring more than 50 stitches. Now Foy says she wouldn't dream of swimming with dolphins.
Foy's attacker is still out there. He is known among the locals a"Mooch," a dolphin who lives on handouts, mostly from tourists.
Researchers say such attacks are rare. They typically happen for a reason, Read says: "Generally either a dolphin has been conditioned to act in an unusual way, by provisioning it with food, or humans are harassing a dolphin and a dolphin strikes out."
Read warns against swimming with wild dolphins. "It's like going on a photo safari and walking up to a lion or a buffalo," he says.
But Ocean isn't listening to any of Read's warnings. She will continue to swim with dolphins, she says. "They seem to know what's most important in life, things that people are looking for now in our lives," she says. "Trust and joy, peace and harmony with their environment and each other."
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