Give them a break! Spinner dolphin tours in Hawaii

Access to public resources is something that most Americans would likely agree is an important right. Enjoying and utilizing our natural environments, such as parks, beaches or waterways, is something everyone should be able to take advantage of. However, how far does this right extend, particularly when the public resource is a living creature? In the Hawaiian Islands, interactions with spinner dolphins should no longer be considered an inherent right, and should be regulated and enforced to prevent inappropriate activities.

Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris), as we learned by speaking with members of the NOAA Protected Species Branch in Oahu, come into shallow bays to rest during the day after travelling to deeper waters at night to feed. This resting period is an important time for them to recharge after being active at night and to avoid interactions with predators. Unfortunately, the shallow bays they inhabit during the day also make them easily accessible by locals and tourists of the islands.

While at the Big Island, we saw firsthand the mayhem that occurs when people try to have their once-in-a-lifetime experience swimming with dolphins. We first observed these interactions during a boat tour with Jack’s Diving Locker. Several boats were in the bay, carrying anywhere from 5-20 people, all of whom were in the water chasing the dolphins in efforts to get close enough to take photos.

A few days later, we saw a repeat of the chaos at Two Step, where snorkelers and kayaks were trying to keep up with the dolphins found there. The people in the kayaks were keeping watch for those swimming, and when they spotted the dolphins they would yell at everyone in the water and direct them where to go to get as close to the dolphins as possible.

Though the employees of Jack’s Diving Locker claimed they ensure their patrons are aware that this is a time of rest for the dolphins and they should not be pursued, this seems to be quickly lost when people are in the water. And people who snorkel from shore never get this information, so they are simply following suit out in the water.

The blatant disregard for the importance of this resting period for spinner dolphins is even more appalling considering these activities are illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Swimming with and disturbing these dolphins during this resting behavior is defined as a take under the MMPA and requires a permit, which these tour companies do not have.

A simple solution to reducing human pressures on this population would be for NOAA to follow their mandate to enforce the MMPA. If NOAA were to issue citations and fines to a handful of tour companies or individuals, word would travel fast that enforcement is taking place in the industry and that this free-for-all structure is no longer acceptable.

In this case, a little enforcement would go a long way to prevent the exploitation of this species. By failing to take action against this growing tourism industry, NOAA is allowing this species to experience unnecessary and illegal harassment.