Around the nearshore waters of the Hawaiian Islands, you are likely to encounter spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins are truly one of the most majestic sea creatures in the world, so many people dream of swimming with them.
There are several places in Hawaii where commercial operators offer dolphin swim tours that combine snorkeling with dolphin watching.
However, if you’re wondering whether it’s ethical to swim with dolphins in Hawaii before you book a trip, then you’re being considerate towards the local ecosystem—because dolphins are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibits “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance” that disrupts the behavioral patterns of marine mammals.
So let’s discuss the ways you can safely (and legally) interact with some of Hawaii’s precious marine mammals, particularly wild dolphins.
In effect on October 28, 2021, a rule authorized by the Marine Mammal Protection Act was finalized by NOAA Fisheries (a federal wildlife management organization), which prohibits “swimming with and approaching a Hawaiian spinner dolphin within 50 yards.” It applies within two nautical miles from the shore of the main islands (and other designated waters).
The news might seem unfortunate for those who haven’t been able to swim with dolphins in Hawaii, but keep in mind that this ruling was passed to prevent harassment or disturbance of Hawaiian spinner dolphins (which require periods of undisturbed rest and nonhuman exposure in their natural habitat).
Even though it’s illegal to pursue dolphins in a manner that could potentially disrupt their livelihood, that doesn’t mean they can’t approach you! Dolphins tend to be naturally playful, so they may swim close to you or your boat (just don’t intercept or chase them). In most cases, that’s how snorkelers and sightseers end up having an intimate experience with Hawaii’s wild dolphins.
The new ruling applies to any “vessel, person, or object.” There are, however, some exceptions that apply to the operation of vessels.
For swimmers, the exception is if they inadvertently come within 50 yards of a spinner dolphin or if they are approached by one.
If you’re interested in swimming with dolphins around Oahu, then click the link to learn more.
It is not advisable to touch a spinner dolphin. In fact, it is illegal under the aforementioned ruling-except if you happen to encounter one inadvertently (and immediately move away from it) or if one approaches you.
You should follow these guidelines for responsible marine mammal watching when around wild dolphins:
For decades, commercial tour operators and recreational swimmers in Hawaii have been eager to approach spinner dolphins up close, often disturbing them when they are resting or performing essential tasks.
But Hawaiian spinner dolphins need rest just as humans do.
During the night, spinner dolphins hunt in offshore waters. During the day, they inhabit nearshore waters nurturing their young, avoiding predators, socializing, and resting before the nighttime hunt.
Therefore, the nearshore waters are their essential habitat during the day, so you can see why disturbing them (or causing them to leave) can pose a serious threat to their existence.
Learn more about protecting dolphins here.