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Hawaii considering ban on swimming with dolphins




Two Spinner dolphins swim alongside each other in the Pacific Ocean.
Two Spinner dolphins swim alongside each other in the Pacific Ocean.
Flickr/Giles Douglas

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Swimming with dolphins may be one of the highlights of a Hawaiian vacation, but a new proposal aims to ban the tourist activity.

The National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed federal rules to stop people from swimming and coming within 50 yards of spinner dolphins.

The NOAA argues that the dolphins need rest and sleep during the day, since they do most of their hunting for food at night. This means tourists could be causing unnecessary stress and exhaustion for the animals.

Tourism businesses, large and small, will feel the negative financial impact of the ban if it goes through. Critics of the proposal argue that swimming with dolphins encourages empathy for the animals, and is doing more good than harm.

Ruling on the proposal is expected by next year.

interview highlights:

Larry Mantle spoke with Naomi Rose, Ph.D., Marine Mammal Scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, an animal protection organization based in DC. Rose talked about the need for the ban and explained why spinner dolphins have needed the proposal for decades.

What is the stress involved for the spinner dolphins in these human-mammal encounters?

Rose: The main thing people have to realize is that these animals are coming into these in-shore areas to rest, to recover from a night time of work, which is when they're foraging. . .So this is when people go to watch them and swim with them. And it's fine when there's not that many people, but when it reaches the levels that it has in recent years, it becomes an issue. These animals are trying to rest and we are in their bedroom disrupting that.

Is there a typical way that the humans and dolphins interact?

Rose: Sometimes it can be really subtle and that's part of the problem. To a lot of the people who are out there interacting with the dolphins, the dolphins seem to be O.K. with it. But some of these reactions that the animals have can be pretty subtle. It can be that eventually they stop using an area as often as they used to, which given that they're trying to protect themselves from predators can be a serious problem. Sometimes they can be more vigilant when they're trying to rest. And [dolphin] vigilance is hard to measure for an average person who is out there on a boat. These are things that have been studied over the years. There's been a lot of research on these dolphins because of this tourism attraction and there's a lot of data to show there are these reactions.

A school of spinner dolphins
A school of spinner dolphins
Steve Isaacs via Flickr

What changes have researchers such as the NOAA seen in the dolphins as a result of this tourist attraction?

Rose: Pulse rate increases and greater vigilance, which is going to be energetically costly for them. They might be on the edge of energetic balance. . . If they are forced to burn more calories just to be more vigilant because there are so many people, that can push them over the edge.

"If [dolphins] are forced to burn more calories just to be more vigilant because there are so many people, that can push them over the edge."
-Naomi Rose

Larry also spoke with Kevin Merrill, owner of Dolphin Discoveries in Kona, Hawaii. He asked Merrill about his view on alternatives to the ban. 

Have you witnessed any of the stress in question as a result of human-dolphin encounters?

Merrill: You can tell some dolphin behavior by their activity. I can't and don't know how to measure stress levels. I don't think think that there have been scientific studies of stress levels. So you can determine that by their behavior and how they react. And we rely a lot on their behavior to tell us when it's appropriate to be near them and when it's not. 

What tells you the dolphins want to be left alone?

Merrill: One of the unique features about the dolphins is that they do feed at night, then they do come to these near shore areas, typically 30 to 40 feet of water with a sandy bottom. So there's a transition period, this window of opportunity between about 7 to 11 a.m. where they're quite active. They're still settling down. They spin and jump and leap. And that's a clear sign that they're not under any stress in our opinion. Then typically, they'll slow down and get into a magic carpet pattern where they start synchronizing their movements and that's definitely a rest behavior. 

"we rely a lot on their behavior to tell us when it's appropriate to be near them and when it's not."

-Kevin Merrill 

And is that when you pull back from them?

Merrill: At that time we'll leave them alone. We actually have a coral guidelines which are voluntary standards. Because it's kind of subjective to say when they're in a rest period and when they're not, by 11 a.m. no one's aloud to be in the water with them [in Kona]. 

Do you have concerns about the number of people who are coming into contact with the dolphins?

Merrill: One of the reasons why we started what we call the Coral voluntary guidelines about five years ago, was because unfortunately there is no training required for any business boat company in Hawaii to interact with dolphins. If you have a commercial permit, there's no restrictions on your ability to take people out and put them in the water. 

So you'd like to see a government requirement where people would like to have special training?

Merrill: We would like to see more of a community-based solution to the problem. And the guidelines provide this outline, but rather than be voluntary, where they don't have any teeth to them, we'd like to see them made mandatory.

AirTalk listeners also weighed in on the proposal to ban swimming with spinner dolphins in Hawaii. Here's what they had to say.

Matt in Glendale:

I think this ban borders on pointless, and I'm not an animal expert, but I feel like I never hear of any negative experiences from people when it comes to swimming with dolphins--no attacks. So I can only imagine that the animals aren't that stressed and the fact that people are aloud to swim with them gives them a greater appreciation for the dolphins and marine life at-large. If we take that away, who's to say that it's not going to harm, not just appreciation for marine life, but our knowledge and our desire to study them.

Andrew in Encinitas

I grew up in Southern California and I had the opportunity to swim with dolphins a number of times in the wild and from that experience. And watching a lot of tourists that weren't necessarily very educated on the correct behavior to have around ocean wildlife, the sheer volume of people who are willing to participate in these [activities] caused an inherent amount of problems we would run into with dolphins, despite their best intentions. A lot of people don't know how to react around them safely. These are not animals that are on the number one endangered species list and need this kind of exposure in order to raise money to save them. Plain and simply, if the dolphin wants any kind of interaction, they'll make that clear. 

Guests:

Kevin Merrill, owner of Dolphin Discoveries in Kona, Hawaii

Naomi Rose, Ph.D. Marine Mammal Scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, an animal protection organization based in DC