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Dolphin Assisted Psychotherapy: An adjunct to evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders

By Eliza Wille, M.S.; program director and experiential therapist; Hawaii Island Recovery


Dolphins and person

Hawaii Island Recovery is a small, private residential treatment center located in Kona, Hawaii. We serve a maximum of eight clients and emphasize highly individualized care for the treatment of addiction and co-occurring disorders. We lean heavily into the therapeutic work of self-discovery, as we believe it is not sufficient to treat the addiction without addressing its root causes. To this end, we provide a variety of therapeutic modalities, including evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

Many people struggling with addiction enter the recovery process with their well-honed defenses still intact. They often intellectualize their feelings in an effort to avoid the effect associated with their own experiences. I believe that in order to heal it you have to feel it, and so begin the inner work to achieve a lasting recovery. Clients must bypass their intellectual defenses and go straight for the feelings. Hence, the therapeutic value of experiential therapies that utilize horses, dolphins, art, and music!

It is a dream realized for me to be able to offer Dolphin Assisted Psychotherapy in a treatment setting. Its genesis required a unique confluence of experience and opportunity, perhaps possible in only a few places the world over.

How many locations in the world can boast a resident pod of wild, free-swimming dolphins that are sufficiently habituated to people that they actually seek out human interactions? I can count them on one hand. How many bosses would enthusiastically support the idea of taking clients in early recovery and dropping them in deep, offshore waters with wild animals? I can’t imagine many, but I’m lucky to work for one. How many people like me have a master’s degree in psychology, spent nearly a decade researching cetaceans (captive and wild), and envisioned one day fusing the two interests together?

With equal parts happenstance and effort, I have been fortunate to bring these components together to create a program that connects dual-diagnosis clients with wild Hawaiian Spinner dolphins.

Why dolphins?


Humans have long mythologized dolphins and often imbue them with mystical qualities. Many people regard them as “more evolved” than humans, and we are quick to project our ideals onto them. People often remark, almost wistfully, how happy dolphins seem, as though to say, “Where did we go wrong?” Truth be told, much of their reputation is well deserved. They are intelligent, emotionally complex, interconnected, and perfectly adapted to their environment. And Spinner dolphins are happier still, notable for their absence of interspecies aggression, which is common in many other species of dolphins. They are like the bonobos of the sea, all blissed out on peace and love!

This natural receptiveness creates an opening for a meaningful experience. The novelty of the milieu sets the stage for an authentic experience, free from the clutter of negative preconceptions.

It is remarkable how quickly the feeling function comes online when you drop a client in the ocean where they can’t see the bottom and surround them with wild animals! The metaphors for recovery are infinite—from powerlessness to surrender, from trust to acceptance, the lessons come with a heightened intensity, for the sea is vast and powerful. The evocation of feelings can be overwhelming, and what comes up for clients often surprises them (and me!).

The experience


As I guide our clients through the encounter, I draw their attention to their inner experience, often a landscape of emotion and insight that had not revealed itself in the relative safety of a talk therapy session. My work in the water is to intuit what a client needs to derive personal relevance from the experience, while also ensuring their emotional and physical safety.

Clients will often first notice the physical sensation of being in the open ocean; the temperature of the water, the strength of the current. Many clients instinctively fight with the ocean to remain afloat. This may heighten anxiety and generate fear, and this becomes our first touchpoint for exploration. With guided breathing and relaxation, clients will begin to discharge tension. As they do, they begin to notice the sensation of the water supporting them. Once we stop resisting, the salty sea will carry us with minimal exertion—a potent exercise in surrender.

The session will naturally take a client only as far as he or she can go. Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking for and accepting help, acknowledging fear, relinquishing ideas of control, trusting in something greater than oneself, or practicing emotional down-regulation. For clients whose awareness extends beyond the somatic sensation, an encounter with the Spinner dolphins may evoke feelings of joy and a deep sense of acceptance.

Some clients have shared that the feeling of being “accepted” by the dolphins was a profound release from the shame and isolation associated with their addiction. Some clients experience grief, longing, and regret, particularly when reflecting on the close and communal nature of the dolphin pod. Others have tenaciously pursued the dolphins as they swim away. When queried, one client professed, “I want what they have!” only to realize upon reflection that he habitually chased away the things he “wants.” Sometimes, the dolphins are elusive and disinterested in us. This can bring up crushing feelings of rejection and disappointment—yet another valuable touchpoint for therapeutic inquiry!

Whatever the day presents us, that becomes our launching point for the processing that follows the encounter. On any given day, the confluence of the elements, dolphins, and disposition of our clients will constellate differently to create a unique opportunity for growth. The nature of this work requires a careful evaluation of expectations and desire for control. This lesson is one I must continually re-work as I set out to provide our clients with an experience that is both meaningful and memorable. Each session invariably takes our clients, and this therapist, into uncharted waters deep within ourselves, ripe for discovery.

For more information about our program, please see our website at or contact me directly at

Editor’s note: Hawaii Island Recovery was recognized on a recent CARF survey report for exemplary conformance. The recognition stated, in part, “Hawaii Island Recovery is commended for its unique use of the best of the natural healing environment to support recovery and, in particular, its unique use in the addictions field with dolphin-assisted psychotherapy.”

(Behavioral Health)

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