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From an artproject to a lectorship in Animal Assisted Interventions

By Blog, News
Reading Time: 4 minutes

We set out as an art project in 2015, with the dream to make it possible for viewers anywhere in the world to experience the beautiful underwater world of wild dolphins. And what it feels like to be part of a pod of wild dolphins, to swim amongst them. Experiences of great beauty can reconnect us with the natural world, and reconnect us with our own nature. The feeling of peace and tranquillity can be very beneficial to our bodies and minds, as science has now proven to be the case with the original experiences of the Dolphin Swim Club.

For the love of people, For the love of dolphins

The participation of animals in programs for therapy, coaching and education is growing. Many people benefit from interaction with animals. However, this raises concern about the beneficial effect on the animals themselves. In the case of dolphins, we know that life in captivity is full of suffering. It is not possible to provide a suitable environment for cetaceans in a limited space in which they can thrive (Naomi A. Rose, The case against marine animals in captivity, 2009).

We are so delighted to be able to provide an alternative with virtual wild dolphins, and our Underwater VR goggles. Stichting SAM has taken up the challenge. This Dutch foundation was founded by Richard Griffioen and his partner Angéla Kramers. They were inspired by the progressive development results of their son Sam, who is born with down syndrome, after meeting a dolphin in a therapeutic setting. Together with a large team of volunteers, they have since helped thousands of children and their parents.

Stichting SAM

Stichting SAM has more than 20 years of expertise in providing Animal Assisted interventions and used to work with dolphins in captivity in the Netherlands and in the Dutch Antilles.

Growing public concern about the welfare of these cetaceans has made the foundation embrace the new possibilities of VR technology. And they have done a fantastic job at providing a therapeutic program based in Amsterdam at the Friendship Sports Centre in Amsterdam.  A collaboration between Stichting SAM, Friendship Sports Centre, Only Friends and the Dolphin Swim Club started in 2017.

Dr. Richard Griffioen sits at a table and signs a paper. In the background we see lined up academia, dressed in black robes.

Lectorship in Animal Assisted Interventions

In May 2022, Dr Richard Griffioen is inaugurated as Lector in Animal Assisted Interventions at the Aeres Hogeschool in Dronten, the Netherlands.

The Lector-ship in Animal Assisted Interventions will direct itself on the One Health program, connecting the wellbeing of animals and humans alike. With his research, Dr Griffioen aims to gain more insight into the effects of the use of Virtual Reality and robotics in the field of Animal Assisted Interventions and to further professionalize the sector. Further research partners are Aeres Hogeschool, AAIZOO (Animal Assisted Interventions in Care, Research and Education) the Open University and Stichting SAM.

We love to share two testimonials about the program in the pool that Dr Griffioen shared with the audience in his inauguration speech :

“We put Underwater Virtual Reality goggles on a girl who hadn’t laughed or smiled in 1.5 years. She swam with the dolphins for some 20 minutes. When she surfaced, she had a huge smile on her face, moving both her mother and sister to tears.
Three months after this event, the doctors reduced her medication to a lower dose, underlining the success of this story. We have gifted the girl a Virtual Reality headset so that she can swim with the dolphins every day for 15 minutes. This continues to give her a tremendous sense of relaxation.”

“One of our clients is a boy with autism. He was always super tense, he just couldn’t relax. But after only 10 minutes with the Underwater Virtual Reality goggles, he surfaced, as high as a kite, and totally relaxed.”

Join the magic

If you are based in the Netherlands and would like to enrol your child or loved one in the program?  Reach out to Stichting SAM for further information and requirements, by sending them an e-mail via

May the spirit of the dolphins be with you, wherever you are, and whatever human form you have.
Marijke Sjollema.


Virtual dolphins help students relax before exams

By News
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Maybe you are still a student. Or perhaps it’s been a while since you were in school. But for sure you remember the dreaded exam period: typically a very stressful time for any student. In the Netherlands and throughout the world, universities have been experimenting with ways to help their pupils deal with this anxiety. For example with so-called “puppy rooms” in the days before the exams. But often, these activities are met with criticism from people who worry about the wellbeing of the animals. 

Virtual dolphins

The Dutch University Van Hall Larenstein may have found the solution. For a pilot with their Animal Science students, the University has teamed up with the Dolphin Swim Club and installed a designated Virtual Reality “relaxation” room. The walls are decorated with dolphins and there are virtual reality goggles and swivel chairs. When the students put on the goggles, they are immediately transported to a tropical ocean. Hundreds of playful, whistling dolphins surround them, accompanied by relaxing music. 

Like taking a mini-break

One of the students, Tess Smit, seems relaxed. “I didn’t expect to be this thrilled. I had to get used to the surroundings, but then, after a few minutes, I started relaxing. The dolphins have a very calming effect.” Tess agrees that this might be the solution to stressful times during the exam period. “People with a 9-to-5 job can relax once they get home. For students, the work never stops. But with these virtual dolphins, it’s like taking a mini-break. It’s great!”

Fully submerged

The university is awaiting the results of this new relaxation method. Students are now researching the effect of the virtual dolphins on the heart pace. But they have already discovered that the imagery slows down the breathing and relaxes the muscles in the face and shoulders. “That’s because your brain doesn’t realise it’s not real. There was even a colleague who was pouting his lips, trying to adjust the mouthpiece of his imaginary snorkel. He was quite literally ‘fully submerged'”.

Straight A’s

Other research has already pointed out that animal-assisted relaxation therapy may also help improve the students’ grades. While the university continues with the pilot, students may not only expect a more relaxing, but also a successful upcoming exam period. The Dolphin Swim Club wishes all students of the Van Hall Larenstein University good luck with their exams!

Omrop Fryslan

The dolphins had people swimming in tanks again, thanks to the Rabobank

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On the 18th of November, the Dutch Rabobank in Leeuwarden organised an innovation event for its clients in de Harmonie. The evening kicked off with futurologist and keynote speaker Mike van Rijswijk and robot Pepper. Talking about the latest technologies, he showed visitors what the future has in store for us. There were other inspiring presentations as well, about mind control, 3D printed food, a stress game and safe clean water. And there was one more big surprise in store for visitors. The Rabobank had installed a huge warm water tank, in which visitors could swim with wild dolphins in Virtual Reality. Over 60 people and press enjoyed this new, magical experience. It was a night to remember!

Stichting Sam starts with their training “swimming with dolphins in VR”

By News
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For a long time, people have shown interest in the therapeutic effects of swimming with dolphins. Dolphins are incredibly intelligent animals. They are highly sensitive and live in complex societies. For over 20 years, the Dutch Stichting Sam has provided so-called dolphin assisted therapies for children with Down syndrome or autism. Virtual Reality is the next step. Children can now engage in an intense and realistic swimming with dolphins in Virtual Reality experience with UnderwaterVR goggles developed by the Dolphin Swim Club.

In collaboration with the Dolphin Swim Club and the Friendship sports centre, Stichting Sam now offers a communication and social interaction training to all children with special educational needs. 

Who can enrol in this training?

This training has been developed for children between 6 to 14 years old, suffering from Down syndrome, autism or related disorders. Consisting of 8 sessions, the children learn in a relaxed and playful manner. And they have a lot of fun too. Communication and social skills are practised using UnderwaterVR goggles. All under the careful supervision of a personal coach and healthcare professionals.  

What do the children learn exactly?

The training focuses on general development, communication skills, completing tasks and controlling emotions. But also the development of speech and language, motoric skills and relaxation.

The most interesting results under participants are

  • profound and visible relaxation;
  • increased concentration;
  • a decrease in problematic behaviour;
  • an increase in playfulness.

Do you want to enrol your child for the training Swimming with dolphins in Virtual Reality?
Visit the website of Stichting Sam for more information. 

Sometimes life brings some good old magic!

By Blog, News
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Sometimes life brings some good old magic!

These photos are taken over 25 years ago. As a young artist, just out of art school I started working on a ship to be able to travel the world gathering inspiration by experiencing it. One of the places I visited were the stunningly beautiful paradise like Islands of French Polynesia. A little seed of longing to one-day return was planted in me forever.

Yes, sometimes life does bring magic moments.

In the beginning of 2019 we received an award by the Human Underwater Society (HUS) for the innovation & development of our underwater VR goggles and the swimming with wild dolphins VR!
As the Human Underwater Society (HUS) is based in Tahiti, and our ticket sponsored by Air Tahiti Nui, I will return to Papeete coming weekend!

We are so much looking forward to meet the people behind the Underwater Society, and doing a community project with them with the waterproof VR goggles! As well as meet up with the local dolphins and other sea creatures of course.
What is very exiting is that in this period the humpback whales who have their feeding grounds around Antartica, will be in the warm coastal waters around the Islands for the females to give birth to their young, while the males are singing.

And of course we will look into the possibilities of filming in VR, so that you too can have the experience of looking into the eye of a baby whale and visit this paradise, truly one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I’ll keep you posted!

Marijke – Founder of the Dolphin Swim Club VR
PS. If you want to receive updates on our adventures in your mailbox, sign up for our newsletter!

The Dolphin Swim Club teams up with Stichting Sam

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The Dolphin Swim Club is happy to announce that we have partnered up with the Dutch foundation Stichting SAM.
For over 20 years, Stichting SAM has offered animal-assisted therapy to children with a mental disability.
And since 2017, Stichting SAM swims with wild dolphins in Virtual Reality, made possible by our UnderwaterVR goggles.

Animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy enhances communicative- and social skills, confidence, emotional stability and concentration, amongst other benefits.
This type of therapy is often carried out with companion animals, such as dogs and horses.
But children with Down Syndrome or Autism experience exceptional benefits from animal-assisted therapy with dolphins.
Unfortunately, these therapies are often carried out with captive dolphins in remote locations.
Patients are being flown over the world for a single therapy session, making this an expensive and exclusive treatment.
We are delighted Stichting SAM has discovered our animal-friendly alternative: swimming with wild dolphins in Virtual Reality!

An underwater paradise

Stichting SAM is situated at Only Friends, a highly specialised sports centre for people with a disability.
Here, swimmers can use facilities that meet their requirements, including an Olympic Pool.
And they love the sessions where they swim with wild dolphins in Virtual Reality.
While it has been shown that the beneficial effects of therapies with captive dolphins wear off after some time, our Wild Dolphin VR therapy is repeatable, cost-effective and the whole family can join in!
Furthermore, a therapy session with Stichting SAM consists of a stimulative educational programme, where children learn about the lives of dolphins in the wild. Finally… swimmers can snorkel or even scuba dive with wild dolphins in Virtual Reality!
All under professional guidance and supervision.

Stichting SAM, the board and all the volunteers… we are delighted to be working with you!

Do you provide animal-assisted therapies and are you insterested in collaborating with the Dolphin Swim Club?

Picture Donate

Got Pain? A Virtual Swim With Dolphins May Help Melt It Away

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Wild dolphins on the National Public Radio

This month, the National Public Radio (NPR) covered a new study by Dr Brennan Spiegel, MD of Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, testing Virtual Reality for pain. Dr Brennan Spiegel has been using our VR therapy including Wild Dolphin VR with his clients for some time now, with positive results.

No stranger to pain

For the item, NPR interviewed Tom Norris, a 70 year old war veteran who suffers from chronic pain through his spine, back and hips. He is one of many patients that uses Virtual Reality as a tool to help him cope with the pain. Ever since he was introduced to Virtual Reality, he’s been hooked. “It’s fantastic, I really feel like I’m there”, says Norris as he is surrounded by our wild, virtual dolphins. “I get a strong feeling of pleasure, relaxation and peace.”

Therapeutic Virtual Reality

Norris’ experience is just one of many touching stories we have heard from patients using Wild Dolphin VR therapy. But as with any new medicine, we need numbers to proof the real effect of the treatment. So we are delighted by the outcome of a new study by Dr Brennan Spiegel, published in the journal PLOS ONE. The study finds that Virtual Reality reduces pain by about three times as much as watching TV. Using a zero to 10 pain scale, the virtual reality experience led to a 2 point drop in pain, compared to a half-drop point for watching TV.

Like a spotlight

So how does it work then? According to Dr Brennan Spiegel this might have something to do with the distraction provided by the Virtual Reality experience. “When the mind is deeply engaged in an immersive experience, it becomes difficult to perceive stimuli outside of the field of attention. VR is thought to create an immersive distraction that restricts the brain from processing the pain.” So like a spotlight, everything else falls into darkness. At least temporarily. It appears that, when used in the right way, at the right time, Virtual Reality can complement medical treatments.


The Dolphin Swim Club at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, California

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In the early spring of 2019, the Dolphin Swim Club was invited to collaborate with the Stanford Chariot Program. Marijke Sjollema and Benno Brada travelled to California. They were accompanied by Georgia Smith of the Scottish University of Stirling, as a research assistant.

Dr Maria Menendez, program manager of the Stanford Chariot Program, selected the Special Needs Aquatic Program (SNAP) for a therapeutic dolphin swimming session using our UnderwaterVR.

Below you find a video of our amazing in-pool swimming session in Berkeley, with wonderful volunteers from SNAP, swimmers, virtual wild dolphins and founder Dori Maxon. With a special thanks to directors Dr Sam Rodriquez and Dr Thomas Caruso of the Chariot program for having us over, as well as SCAS for their generous scholarship for Georgia.


Interview with Marijke in XRDC’s Innovation in AR & VR for Healthcare Report

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In October 2018, founder Marijke Sjollema was invited to speak at the premier conference for Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in San Francisco: XRDC. Marijke spoke about her journey from a work of art to an evidence-based medicine. For their second annual Innovation in VR & AR for Healthcare Report, XRDC interviewed several experts, like veteran game developer and former Chief Game Designer at Google Noah Falstein, USC Intititute for Creative Technologies R&D director Arno Hartholt and our own founder Marijke Sjollema, about cutting-edge topics like how VR is being used in healing, drug discovery, and neuroscience.

Blending art and science to create therapeutic VR experiences

Tell us about yourself and your recent work in AR/VR
“After a chance encounter with a wild dolphin in 1993, followed by over two decades of fascination with cetaceans, I founded the
Dolphin Swim Club in 2015 and was soon joined by my partner Benno Brada as our producer. The art project quickly grew into an organization that uses the healing power of art and nature to craft therapeutic experiences in virtual reality. The unique VR content is currently being used as an evidence-based, drug-free medicine in over 500 hospitals and healthcare institutions worldwide, and is present in several scientific studies. In 2017, the organization developed waterproof VR goggles that allow users to swim in real water, with virtual wild dolphins, and experience real therapeutic effects. As well as providing an entirely cruelty-free alternative for so-called dolphin-assisted therapies with captive dolphins.”

What excites you most about AR/VR in 2019?
“I stand in a long and rich Dutch tradition, as I was trained as a painter and still wake up with that ‘eye’ every day. I imagine that artists like Rembrandt, van Gogh or Mondrian, if they were alive today, would surely have embraced this entirely new and fantastic tech. To create a world, and then be able to walk or swim or fly around in it; to create a work of art that becomes a medicine; this is truly a new and unique path available to me as an artist today, where the work you create can cross over from being not just a product, but an experience to touch people’s lives with. And of course, life will be easier with all kinds of improvements in the quality of equipment, software, user-friendliness, affordability etc. In this respect, I think the future is looking bright. Another exciting aspect of using our healing VR experiences to help patients cope with pain or anxiety is that it leads to a reduction in the use of chemical medicines. As we use lower doses of these drugs, not only do the patients benefit, but it also contributes to cleaner water and a healthier environment. So we all benefit.”

What do you think is now the biggest challenge to realizing AR/VR’s potential?
“To connect talented medical scientists, artists, and technicians to collaborate on amazing projects, so people in the dark hours of their lives can have the best virtual medicine we can come up with. Also, finding the proper funding and collaborators. There are already quite a few fantastic and very effective examples of what magic can be achieved (and of course, I am proud that Dolphin Swim Club is one of them). I like the example of the syringe; It must be sharp, it must be sterile, but in the end, what works is what you put in it. Second, I think there is also a challenge to make an effort to provide some assistance, and to get staff closest to the patients “on board” with this technology to provide enthusiasm and support. All efforts are in vain if it all ends up gathering dust on a shelf.”

Immersive tech is a powerful tool and we have seen some remarkable results. Not only in a pure healing sense, but in palliative care sense as well, providing comfort and peace of mind.

What’s one cool AR/VR application you think people should know about?
“I am a fan of VR/R experiences that offer freedom beyond the bounds of traditional VR: location-based, immersive experiences that incorporating more senses besides our sight and hearing. This is usually not possible or very practical within healthcare. So may I be a bit immodest to say that we are very proud to have developed underwaterVR goggles. As our skin is our biggest organ, it is so immersive and a lot of fun to swim in real water with virtual wild dolphins. For this technical achievement we received a Laval Virtual- ACM Siggraph Award, as well as an award from the French Polynesian Human Underwater Society. In a practical sense it is being used in aquatic therapies with burn wound patients, revalidation, mentally or physically disabled swimmers during therapy sessions, and animal-assisted therapy. To reduce pain, and bring joy and motivation into exercises.”

How do you work with the limitations of AR/VR to design effective healing experiences?
“We try to gather as much feedback from users and medical specialists as we can, to learn what works, what their needs are, what limitations they have as patients themselves. So if there is a limitation in movement, we focus on a specific field of view without losing the immersive quality. We also consider the emotional impact and the feelings of comfort someone might enjoy from having other humans in the water, or whether they’d rather not. Or we play music or guided meditations, if that’s preferable, instead of natural sounds. What works in VR/AR as medicine is very personal, so I believe strongly in providing many options for what could bring effective healing. Not everything works with everybody all the time, just like all other medicine. However, if it works, it works; immersive tech is a powerful tool and we have seen some remarkable results. Not only in a pure healing sense but in a palliative care sense as well, providing comfort and peace of mind during the last weeks or days of people’s lives.”

Interested in reading the full ‘Innovation for VR & AR in Healthcare’ report? It contains lots of interesting use cases for AR and VR.
You can download the full report here, after registration.

Virtual Medicine

Dr. Brennan Spiegel at the Virtual Medicine Conference: the effect of Wild Dolphin VR is remarkable

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In March, the Cedars-Sinai hospital organized the second Virtual Medicine Conference in Los Angeles. While we could not be physically present this year, the Dolphin Swim Club was highlighted by the director of Health Services Research (and GI doctor) Dr Brennan Spiegel. In an introductory keynote speech, he explained our current understanding of pain and anxiety and the healing effects of Virtual Reality therapy, using various examples, including the Dolphin Swim Club.

Counteracting the ruminating mind

Using Wild Dolphin VR as an example, Dr Brennan Spiegel explains Virtual Reality’s ability to counteract the ruminating mind. He explained that a Virtual Reality experience is like taking a psychedelic. It has the ability to temporarily dissolve the ego-self, allowing insights that normally would not receive mind space.

Dr Brennan Spiegel: ‘We use the 360 video content of the Dolphin Swim Club all the time in our patients. Just recently I had a patient who was hospitalized for abdominal pain and anxiety. She had had every test: she had had an endoscopy, a CT scan, a blood test… And everything was normal. We showed her the Wild Dolphin VR experience. And after about four minutes she said… “I think I know why I have this pain. It’s my brother. He had stomach cancer and he died. And I’m sure I do too, and I’m going to die like he did.” And I said: “but we’ve been in your stomach, you don’t have stomach cancer.” And she said: “I know that, but I have not been willing to accept that. These dolphins are telling me I need to. I could have been on the couch for a year and I wouldn’t have come to this conclusion.” It’s remarkable! We’ve seen this over and over again. It doesn’t work with all people and all times. But when it works, it works.’

Interested in the full keynote? You can watch it here.
Do you want to know more about Virtual Reality in healthcare? You can read more about its healing effects on our Medical VR page.