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Swimming with dolphins in Kona

By: Denver Leaman

I have gotten a large number of emails over the last year asking which "Swim with Dolphins" tour I would recommend. I have tried to answer these inquiries individually but I am not responding to them anymore. The "Swim with Dolphins" industry in Kona is simply out of control. A lot of folks are making a lot of money catering to the desires of tourists for that up close dolphin experience. Go to GOOGLE and search for “Kona wild dolphin swims” and you will get pages of results.

I have lived in Hawaii since the end of 1978 and have seen this activity take more and more of a toll on these animals. Dolphin numbers in Kealakekua Bay for instance are down over the last decade. These dolphins, particularly Spinner dolphins, are spending most of their daylight hours sleeping and resting. These animals are not involuntary breathers and are negatively buoyant, so unconsciousness is not an option for them. Dolphins and whales sleep one hemisphere of the brain at a time and so appear to be awake to uninformed observers. (This sleep method is described as a “unihemispherical slow-wave sleep cycle”.) The ever increasing numbers of tourists who insist on kayaking out, jumping in and swimming with these animals leads to increased stress and less security and rest for them. Many pods no longer frequent traditional resting areas and have simply moved to other locations to avoid interactions with people. Unfortunately these animals prefer shallow sandy areas in which to rest and these areas are rare in the steep rocky coastal waters of the Big Island. Many people, including myself, have had the thrill of dolphins cruising past while diving in the coastal waters here, but seeking the animals out to engage in interactions with them is a different matter.

I recently solicited an opinion of the practice from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and received in part the following information.

"The Marine Mammal Protection Act does not provide for a permit or other authorization process to view or interact with wild marine mammals, except for specific listed purposes such as scientific research. Therefore, interacting with wild marine mammals should not be attempted and viewing marine mammals must be conducted in a manner that does not harass the animals. NMFS cannot support, condone, approve or authorize activities that involve closely approaching, interacting or attempting to interact with whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals or sea lions in the wild. This includes attempting to swim with, pet, touch or elicit a reaction from the animals. NMFS believes that such activities constitute "harassment" as defined in the MMPA since they involve acts of pursuit, torment or annoyance that have the potential to injure or disrupt the behavioral patterns of wild marine mammals."

The bottom line is that the activity itself is illegal, despite the lack of enforcement. While many of the sites on the web tout the wonders of swimming with these animals, this NMFS response clearly states that the activity is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Something clearly needs to change for the sake of the dolphins.

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Denver Leaman

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