Swimming among the dolphins in the clear waters off the Hawaiian coast has long enticed island visitors. But federal officials say the activity is harmful to the creatures when they are supposed to be resting and socializing, and they are proposing a ban on the popular tourism activity.
The proposed rules, announced this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would prohibit swimming with or approaching within 50 yards of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. That would end many current tour group practices, which involve approaching dolphins in a boat and snorkeling in the water with them.
Dolphins typically forage offshore in the night for fish, shrimp and squid, then return toward land during the day to relax. They swim even when they're sleeping. But officials say the presence of boats and swimmers is disrupting their habits, causing "a departure from natural behavioral patterns that support the animal's health and fitness," according to the proposed guidelines.
The tours are popular with visitors, and the excursions are promoted on the Hawaii Tourism Authority's website.
"We think by identifying 50 yards as the minimum distance that there still can be a viable tourist industry in Hawaii," Ann Garrett, an assistant regional administrator for protected resources for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said this week during a conference call with reporters.
Reached by phone, two separate tour operators disagreed.
"It would be the end of legitimate dolphin swimming," said Kevin Merrill, the co-owner of Dolphin Discoveries in Kona, Hawaii. "We couldn't offer the people the quality interaction that they expect."
"It's kind of like asking people at a dolphin show to stay outside the gate," said Roberta Goodman, the owner of Wild Dolphin Swims Hawaii in Holualoa.
In a typical excursion, tourists would load into a boat early in the morning. Once dolphins are spotted, tourists would get out of the boat, wading in the waters nearby.
Merrill and Goodman said they were aware of tour operators who behave unethically or dangerously, but that most were responsible and mindful of not harming the dolphins. They said that they prohibit guests from touching the dolphins or swimming overhand, which can spook the animals.
Goodman, who has worked with dolphins since 1985, said she did not see signs that they were disturbed by the tour groups.
"We watch them nurse, and make love, and play, and travel and sleep," she said. "They continue with their natural behaviors while they're in the water with us. They've accepted us into their environment with them."
The Marine Mammal Protection Act already prohibits the harassment of dolphins, but the proposed rule would add the 50-yard barrier. It would make exceptions for those who inadvertently come within 50 yards of a dolphin, or if steering away from the dolphins would be unsafe. The restrictions would apply within two miles off the coast of the Hawaiian islands, plus an area between the islands of Lanai, Maui and Kahoolawe.
NOAA Fisheries is accepting public comment for 60 days. The final rule will most likely be decided within a year, according to a document created by the agency's Pacific islands regional office.
Merrill, who has been giving tours with his wife, Claudia Merrill, since 1992, said his groups are not in the water past 11 a.m., allowing the dolphins their resting time. It is among the guidelines recommended by the Coral Reef Alliance, which several tour operators voluntarily follow, he said.
When he started, there were just a few operators, who all cared deeply about the dolphins, but the industry has exploded in the past decade, he said. Merrill said he would prefer to see the Coral Reef Alliance guidelines made mandatory, arguing that there is little valid evidence that reputable tour operators have harmed the animals.
"You don't swim with the dolphins," he said. "The dolphins choose to swim with us."