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Discouraging swimmers away from dolphin waters

Local businesses to take a spin after proposed spinner dolphin interaction ban 

Reporters: Claire Lawlor and Evangeline Cook

Videographer: Victoria Cuba

Lead/Editor: Stephanie Kim

Currently, over 100 ocean tour companies exist in Hawai'i that include interactions with dolphins. Recent legislation is proposing federal changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), enacted on Oct. 21, 1972, that will protect the Hawaiian spinner dolphins by prohibiting people and vessels from approaching or swimming with the dolphins within 50 yards.

If the proposed ban is approved by legislation, these companies will then be responsible for changing their entire business model, according to NOAA Representative Jean Higgins. Therefore, tourism may take a big hit in response to this new regulation.

Their history on o'ahu

Spinner Dolphins received their name because they leap out of the water to spin. On O'ahu, the dolphins can be found in their daytime habitat areas, such as Kahana Bay, Waianae Coast or Portlock.


Because of their proximity to near-shore locations, the dolphins are easily accessible to people seeking them for viewing or interaction purposes, according to NOAA’s draft environmental impact statement released in Aug. 2016.

New Ban Protect's Hawaii's Spinner Dolphins
Hoa Oahu

New Ban Protect's Hawaii's Spinner Dolphins

getting too


Level B harassment is defined as any act of pursuit, annoyance that has the potential to cause disruption of behaviors.

- Jean Higgins, NOAA Representative


Higgins said that getting too close to wild spinner dolphins is a case of level B harassment.


“Level B harassment is defined as any act of pursuit, annoyance that has the potential to cause disruption of behaviors,” Higgins said.


These behaviors include breeding, traveling and most importantly, resting. NOAA’s Trevor Spradlin says that intruding on the dolphin’s rest time ‘very much analogues to someone going into someone else’s bedroom while they are sleeping.’


According to the NOAA report, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is proposing these regulations to manage the threat to Hawaiian spinner dolphins, specifically for near-shore locations.

Companies such as Dolphin Journey’s feel that further research is needed before going through with such drastic changes.


Captain Nancy Sweatt of Dolphin Journeys has worked with the dolphins for 30 years and says that there is no way to disturb the dolphins from their traveling or sleeping, especially because the dolphins sleep closer to the sea floor.


“There is no way to get the dolphins to swim with you while they are sleeping,” Sweatt said. “What they [NOAA] don’t understand is that the dolphins always swim up to us. You cannot catch up to a dolphin by swimming even if you tried.”

Not only will this ban affect boat tours, but also jet ski, surf and stand up paddlers, both commercial and personal.

If the ban goes through, several water companies would cease to continue operating because of the conflict of having to immediately get out of the water in the case of a wild dolphin approaching. However, scuba divers may be the last industry to survive as NOAA refuses to regulate underwater, according to Sweatt.




“As soon as they see a dolphin within 50 feet of them, the ban says you must get out of the water immediately, which ultimately isn’t possible if you’re out in the middle of the ocean,”

- Captain Nancy Sweatt, Dolphin Journeys

Here on Oahu, you can find wild spinner dolphins on the west side at Mākaha beach as well as Makua beach. And as of now, any ordinary person can swim off the coast of either of these beaches and come into close encounters with a dolphin and will not be penalized. However, with this ban in place, even people who aren’t on dolphin tours could get fined or even arrested for being too close to the dolphins.


“This ban will systematically destroy the entire water industry here in Hawai'i,” Sweatt said. “Nature wants humans and animals to live together, as long as we live together in respect.”

Tourists will still be able to swim with dolphins at parks such as Sea Life Park Hawai’i because the facility has a program that does not meet the definition of the Marine Protection Act. These parks are regulated by USDA under the Welfare Act where they pay attention to how the animals are treated and trained at those facilities.

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