One of the most popular tourist activities in Hawaii is to swim with the spinner dolphins. That practice, however, has now been banned to protect the dolphins.
Numerous companies in Hawaii offer tours that take swimmers to areas frequented by spinner dolphins. Once there, people have the opportunity to get in the water with the dolphins. The problem is that biologists have said for years that this practice stresses the dolphins.
Earlier this week, after a years-long effort, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) passed a rule under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect Hawaiian spinner dolphins and “prevent their disturbance.” The bottom line is that people and vessels won’t be able to get closer than 50 yards of the dolphins beginning October 28, 2021.
Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins
Spinner dolphins, which can be about 6.5 feet long, live in warm ocean waters. There are several populations all over the world: near Thailand, along Central America’s Pacific Ocean coast, and, of course, around the Hawaiian Islands. They travel in groups called schools, which can number in the hundreds.
“Spinner dolphins are the acrobats of the ocean,” the National Wildlife Federation explains. “They love to jump, flip, and twist above the surface of the water. Spinner dolphins earned their name because of their ability to spin multiple times in one jump. Scientists believe they spin for several reasons, including communication, removing parasites, and simply for the fun of it.”
The dolphins are carnivores, eating fish and squid. At night, spinner dolphins swim out to deeper water to hunt and eat. Then, in the morning, they travel back to shallow water to rest, play, socialize, and hide from sharks.
The problem is that humans know about all of these behaviors.
“Like all animals, Hawaiian spinner dolphins need rest,” NOAA explains. “But for decades, spinner dolphins in Hawaii have experienced intense viewing pressure from commercial and recreational wildlife viewers seeking close encounters with the charismatic marine mammals.”
A Much-Anticipated Ruling
Biologists have worried about the dolphins for years.
Indeed, the continued — and growing — presence of humans may cause the spinner dolphins to “abandon their habitat and have increasing health problems,” Ann Garrett, assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, said in 2016 when the rule was first proposed.
“We can’t function as well as we could without a good night’s sleep, and neither can they,” Garrett said. “Over time, their health may be impacted and they may not nurture young as well. They could even abandon their young or habitat, and they may suffer long-term population impacts.”
The NOAA rule reads: “NOAA Fisheries announces the final rule to enhance the protection of Hawaiian spinner dolphins and prevent their disturbance. This rule prohibits swimming with, approaching, or remaining within 50 yards of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin (for persons, vessels, and objects) including approach by interception, or placing a vessel, person, or other object in the path of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin so that the dolphin approaches within 50 yards of the vessel, person, or object (e.g., “leapfrogging”).”
The statement goes on to note that the rule “applies within 2 nautical miles from shore of the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) and in designated waters bounded by the islands of Lāna‘i, Maui, and Kahoʻolawe.”
You Can Still See The Dolphins
Don’t worry if you’re planning a trip to Hawaii and want to see spinner dolphins – you can still see them.
NOAA says dolphin and wildlife tours can continue in Hawaii as long as boats and people are kept more than 50 yards away from the spinner dolphins. In the event that a person or boat inadvertently gets too close to a spinner dolphin or the dolphin approaches them, NOAA says no effort can be made to engage or pursue the animal. The person or boat must also take immediate steps to move away.