25 Investigates: Acushnet woman attacked by dolphin while on vacation, leaving her with broken back

“Like David Ortiz would take a baseball bat and just swing it at my back,” recalls the grandmother, of the attack.

ACUSHNET, Mass. — It was a trip months in the making to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary with kids and grandkids, and Janet and Steve Ferreira spared no expense. The Acushnet couple booked a family cruise that would take them to several Caribbean islands and Mexico, with several excursions along the way, including a swim with dolphins in Cozumel.

It was all sunshine and laughter for the Ferreira family until, Janet says, things went awry during the dolphin encounter she paid hundreds of dollars for.

She was in the water waiting for two dolphins to swim up behind her for a “dolphin tow” when, according to the grandmother and former first grade teacher, one of the dolphins went rogue and rammed her in the lower back.

“Maybe two seconds after that hit, here comes another one,” Janet recalls of the August 2019 attack. “It’s like somebody would take a baseball bat, like David Ortiz would take a baseball bat and just swing it at my back. You start thinking, ‘If this hits me one more time, I could die,’ die in front of my family and in front of my three young grandchildren.”

She says the dolphin struck her three times before a trainer jumped in a yanked her out of the water.

Janet was taken to a local hospital with a broken spine and ribs. She doesn’t speak Spanish, so communicating with medical staff was difficult. As she battled intense pain her family and friends back home worked around the clock to get her flown back to Boston in an air ambulance.

Janet filed a lawsuit against Dolphin Discovery Cozumel and Royal Caribbean, the cruise line she booked the dolphin excursion with. Royal Caribbean declined to comment pending litigation. But, in a statement, The Dolphin Company, the parent company of Dolphin Discovery Cozumel, which was operating the excursion Janet was on, said:

“For more than 27 years The Dolphin Company has operated with the greatest respect and consideration for our guests, our team members and the animals in our care. Each year 2 million visitors come to our parks around the world. Above all, safety and security are our number one priority; any type of unplanned experience is very rare yet something we take very seriously. Dolphin Discovery Cozumel has been in our family of parks since 1998 hosting more than 1.8 million visitors since that time.”

“She lied in bed for about a day and a half, without any treatment, until a transport could be arranged,” said George Leontire, Janet’s attorney.

Dolphin attacks are rare, but travel injuries are common. When trouble strikes in a foreign country, it can be a devastating.

“You feel alone, you’re helpless. Helpless because we felt that they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to handle it,” said Janet’s husband Steve, recounting the experience to 25 Investigates.

According to the CDC, 1 in 5 Americans is injured while on vacation. Car and bike crashes; slip and falls; food poisoning; water, theme park and sports accidents top the list. Access to medical care varies from country to country, said Anne Lischwe, a travel advisor with AAA Northeast.

She says Medicare and most private health insurance will not cover medical care outside the United States, and in some countries proof of payment is required before a doctor will even see you.

Lischwe recommends travel insurance. There are countless short-term policies available that cover medical expenses abroad, air ambulance rides back to the U.S. and reimbursement if you or a family member gets COVID right before or during a trip.

“It’s not necessarily a one size fits all. You want to think about what is important to you, and what are you concerned about,” says Lischwe. “You call one number and they tell you what to do, they’ll tell you what hospital to go to, they’ll walk through all of that.”

Travel insurance costs about 3 to 11 percent of your total trip, depending on the policy and where you are going.

It took Janet more than a month just to get back on her feet. She can no longer teach because of permanent damage to her spine.

“If I ever go to an island, I will shop. There will be no excursions of any kind, way, shape or form,” she said.

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