Dolphins are one of the most adored aquatic mammals due to their charismatic and friendly nature. In Hawaii, spinner dolphins attract thousands of tourists to the island every year, but the lack of regulation on human interaction with these social creatures is changing their behavior and disrupting their sleep cycle:
Spinner dolphins are nocturnal, foraging in the deep ocean at night and returning to shallow waters to rest during the day, said Susan Pultz, the chief of conservation planning and rule-making for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“When you get the numbers [of tourists] we’re seeing, they’re constantly disturbed all day long. That’s their resting period,” said Pultz.
“As we all know, if you don’t rest day after day after day, it does affect your fitness.”
Spinner dolphins continue swimming while they are sleeping, so people may not be aware they are waking the cetaceans up.
To help protect the sleep and livelihood of the animals, the federal government is proposing a ban on swimming with dolphins. The proposed rule would bar people from swimming or approaching within 50 yards of the Hawaiian spinner dolphin.
“At some locations, up to 13 tour boats have been observed jockeying for position on a single dolphin group, with up to 60 snorkelers in the water,” the rule reads. “In addition, organized retreats centered on dolphin encounters, dolphin-assisted therapy, and dolphin-associated spiritual practices have flourished in certain areas.”
Pultz said her agency has observed changes in dolphin behavior due to the increase in human interaction, including dolphins avoiding people, increasing their aerial behavior, and leaving bays when too many boats were present, all of which require them to expend extra energy.
Fortunately, there are those in the local community that recognize threats to the dolphins, and even some companies that offer boat tours to the bays that dolphins frequent are in support of the ban, such as Victor Lozano, the owner of Dolphin Excursions in Oahu.
“It’s long overdue. We’re ready for it,” Lozano said, emphasizing that he wanted to see the regulations enforced against boats and swimmers alike.
Lozano has been providing boat tours for 23 years and said that the behavior of people toward the dolphins had gotten out of control, which he blamed on the desire for “self-gratifying selfies”.
Harassing spinner dolphins – or any marine mammal – is already illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The proposed rules would clarify that getting within 50 yards of a spinner dolphin is considered illegal harassment.
Tourists will need to accept and learn that showing an appreciation for the animals requires respecting their habitat and lifestyle, and not taking ‘mad’ selfies with them.
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