Environmentalists and tour operators are sometimes at odds over programs that offer a chance to swim with spinner dolphins in Hawaii.
Environmentalists and tour operators are sometimes at odds over programs that offer a chance to swim with spinner dolphins in Hawaii.
Wild Dolphin Foundation

Should You Swim With This Dolphin?

Swimming with wild spinner dolphins in their Hawaiian habitats sounds like fun -- but it may be illegal.
Swimming with wild spinner dolphins in their Hawaiian habitats sounds like fun -- but it may be illegal. (Wild Dolphin Foundation)

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By Elizabeth Chang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 2006

I'm a living cliche, a "Flipper"-raised baby boomer who has always wanted to get close to a dolphin. Until recently, however, the opportunities I'd come across while visiting relatives in Hawaii -- swimming with captive dolphins imprisoned in pools at ocean parks or on luxury hotel properties -- had always felt a little icky. So when I read on the Internet about tours that allow people to swim with wild dolphins in their own habitat, I was sold.

It never occurred to me that it might be illegal.

Before my family's most recent trip to Oahu, I made reservations with Wild Side Specialty Tours, which advertised that it brings along a naturalist and limits the number of passengers on its boat; though the boat can carry 38 people, tours consist of 16 passengers. Thus one morning this past August, my husband, Darryl, and I woke our two daughters at 5:30 a.m., drove to Waianae Harbor on Oahu's leeward coast and boarded Wild Side's 42-foot catamaran, the Island Spirit, to fulfill my fantasy.

We were looking for spinner dolphins, which, the crew explained, are smaller than the bottlenose variety seen on "Flipper" or in most aquarium shows and can often be found hanging out in predator-free sandy-bottomed bays during the day. There they kick back and relax, maybe engage in a little of the activity that gives them their name (spinning leaps out of the water), before resting up for another night of hunting.

Though we visited two of the popular "resting grounds," we didn't spy a single spinner. We retreated to a popular snorkeling site off Makaha Beach and managed to find a quartet of green sea turtles; a couple were even ringed with leis of fish, who were keeping their shells clean.

They were nice, but they weren't dolphins, so the next week we returned to Waianae. I was so intent on seeing spinners this time that when Wild Side owner Tori Cullins told me that the bananas we'd brought on board were bad luck, I tossed the fruit onto the dock.

Soon, the captain got a radio message that dolphins had been spied near the power plant. As we drew closer, we were given instructions: Swim with the dolphins, not at the dolphins; don't touch them; don't splash around too much. Though the crew seemed positive the encounter would happen, I didn't entirely believe we were really going to swim with dolpins. I was still fretting about the bananas.

* * *

I didn't know it at the time, but some people consider swimming with wild dolphins as bad as swimming with captive ones, if not worse. In fact, swimming with wild dolphins could be considered illegal.

The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits any "taking" of marine mammals, i.e., to "harass, hunt, capture, or kill." "Level B harassment" was later defined in the act as "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which . . . has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns.''

While the research is ongoing, some experts believe that when humans come to the spinners' resting grounds, they could change the dolphins' behavior and perhaps endanger them. The spinners go to those areas "for a purpose, and that's because they need to rest," said Peter T. Young, who heads Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

If the dolphins don't get adequate downtime, that could make it more difficult for them to fish and to avoid predators at night, Young explained. In addition, other dolphin advocates believe, ardent humans could be driving the dolphins to less-safe areas for relaxation.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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