In the picturesque setting of Honokohau Harbor near Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Island, tourists eagerly board boats in the early morning sunlight, excited about the prospect of swimming with Hawaii’s famous spinner dolphins.
Friendly Encounters with Spinner Dolphins
These marine mammals, known for their playful leaps and graceful spins in the air, have become a highlight for visitors in Hawaii. The spinner dolphins in Hawaii are a subspecies found throughout the Northern Pacific island chain and have developed a friendly rapport with humans over the years.
Growing Popularity and Concerns
In the past decade, the demand for boat-based dolphin swim tours has skyrocketed, fueled by captivating images shared on social media. While these encounters provide unforgettable experiences, some scientists and conservationists express concerns about the well-being of the dolphins due to the increasing number of visitors, many arriving on high-speed tourist boats.
NOAA’s Proposed Rule
Recognizing the potential impact on spinner dolphins, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed a rule in 2016 to prohibit swimming within 50 yards of the animals. Over 22,000 public comments receive on the draft rule, reflecting the ongoing debate about the effects of human interaction on dolphins.
Addressing Potential Harassment
According to Adam Kurtz, marine wildlife management coordinator with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, research indicates that approaching spinner dolphins within 50 yards constitutes “harassment” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. One primary concern is that swim tours might disrupt the dolphins during their daytime resting period, impacting their recovery from nighttime fishing forays in the open ocean.
Final Rule and Exceptions
NOAA expects to release the final rule in the spring of 2020, aiming to mitigate the impact of repeated close encounters between boats, people, and dolphins. The rule will include exceptions for cases when dolphins voluntarily approach swimmers.
Dolphins as Fascinating Creatures
Dolphins hold a unique fascination for people worldwide, characterized by their human-like behavior and interest in humans. They are often seen as “the hippies of the sea,” embodying love, fun, and play.
Local and Tourist Interactions
Swimming with wild spinner dolphins is not exclusive to tourists. Residents of the Kona Coast have been enjoying these encounters for over 30 years. Some individuals even move to Hawaii Island specifically for the opportunity to connect with the resident spinner dolphins.
Mutual Respect in the Water
Joan Ocean, who has swum beside dolphins countless times, emphasizes that these encounters are guided by mutual respect. It is always the dolphins’ choice whether they engage with swimmers. Swimmers, in turn, follow a few simple guidelines to maintain a harmonious interaction: entering the water quietly, not swimming over them, calmly floating or kicking with arms at their sides, and refraining from touching the dolphins.
Unique Dolphin Interactions
Joan Ocean, who has also swum with dolphins and whales in 20 other countries, believes that the human-dolphin interactions in Hawaii are unique. Over the years, more dolphins have been coming to greet people, just as more people arrive in Hawaii to swim with these charismatic marine creatures.