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Keeping Wild Dolphins Wild

Swimming with wild dolphins is on the bucket list of many visitors’ when they come to Hawaiʻi. While the thought of gliding alongside these majestic creatures may appeal to many, swimming with wild dolphins may constitute harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Human contact with these beautiful marine mammals can have a devastating impact on their health and well-being. Therefore, before you decide to jump in the ocean, learn more about the negative consequences that can occur when humans interfere with the natural habitat and daily routine of our wild spinner dolphins.

On May 21, 2019, the Marine Mammal Commission held a meeting in Kona, Hawaii to give a final review for a dolphin swimming ban. At the meeting, it was stated that and estimated three million visitors come to the state every year to enjoy whale and/or dolphin related activities. During the meeting, University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Maine Mammal Research Program Director Lars Bejder, referred to recent doctoral research by Julian Tyne regarding the effects of human contact on marine mammals off the Kona coast.

Bejder stated, “The spinner dolphins off the Kona Coast of Hawaii have the highest human exposure rates than anywhere in the world. Eighty-three percent of the time, when they are in their resting bays, they have humans within 100 meters. The average time between exposure is just 9.6 minutes.”

It is also noteworthy that the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, PONO and Hawaii Tourism Association do not recognize the membership of boat operators who promote swimming with dolphins.

Spinner dolphins feed off-shore in the evenings and migrate close to shore during the day hours. These sheltered bays provide a safe haven for the dolphins to rest and care for their young. Many boats, charters and swimmers enjoy visiting the wild dolphins during the day when they are resting near the coastline.

These interactions with people disturb the natural routine of the dolphins, requiring them to expend their energy responding to the activity thrust upon them by human curiosity. This is energy that can otherwise be spent on resting and other activities needed for survival and optimal well-being.

In fact, swimming with wild dolphins can be so detrimental to their health, the Marine Mammal Protection Act considers this activity to be harassment and has labeled it an illegal activity. Harassment is defined as any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance that has the potential to disrupt a marine mammal’s behavior.

Consistent disturbance of resting spinner dolphins is shown to affect their reproductive success, and can force them to relocate to other locations that may not offer as much protection from predators.

Hawaiian spinner dolphins choose their resting places carefully. White sandy ocean floors, which are found close to shore, are in close proximity to feeding sights. The lighter background created by the white sand, makes predators easier to spot. If pressured to leave these safe havens, the dolphin’s safety decreases and the energy spent changing their migration patterns can leave them vulnerable to stress, affecting their success in breeding and caring for their offspring.

It’s important to not confuse a spinner dolphin’s natural curiosity with friendliness. If approached by a dolphin, it’s best to leave them undisturbed by not actively engaging with them. In fact, it’s recommended that people keep at least a 50-yard distance between themselves and the animal. If visitors want to demonstrate their support for dolphin conservation, the best way to enjoy them is from a boat like the Kanoa II. Let our spinner dolphins rest and in their natural habitat. Let’s show them some aloha and let the wild ones stay wild!