Scientists encouraging new touring guidelines to keep dolphins safe

Federal "Dolphin Smart" campaign includes restrictions on viewing of marine mammals

Published  9:08 AM HST Aug 21, 2013
Dolphins
WAIANAE, Hawaii -

An explosion of commercial dolphin tours across the islands is prompting closer federal scrutiny.

Now scientists are throwing the spotlight on what is reckless versus what is responsible viewing of spinner dolphins.

About a dozen companies on Oahu's west side are taking the bait, offering tours out of Ko'olina and Waianae.

"Our operation and the other  boats, we alone go out two or three times a day," said Shane Griffen of Ocean Joy Tours who offers the dolphin excursions. "That could be a thousand times a year and multiply that by ten or eleven boats that's a lost of disturbance."

That potential for dolphin disturbance is prompting a new National Fisheries Service campaign. Dubbed "Dolphin Smart", a kind-of seal of approval to discourage the harassing of dolphins protected under the marine mammal protection act.

"It's something that's on alot of people's bucket list to swim with the dolphins." said Laura McCue, coordinator of Dolphin Smart.  "People are willing to pay top dollar for dolphin swims."

Ocean Joy was one of the first companies to sign on. Shane Griffin draws the line at swimming with dolphins.  He estimates he's turned away millions of dollars by sticking to that rule.

"I wish more owners of activities join in with us on this because we feel over the last nine years we have seen the number of dolphins who are constantly here are less constant and even smaller in numbers," saud Griffin.

Smaller in number, perhaps.  But they still draw a crowd.

With all the boats on Oahu's waters, it's a bit of a waiting game. But you don't have to wait long,

The dolphin show begins right on cue. That's when Dolphin Smart's checklist kicks in.

"We want to make sure they turn off engines. Don't approach closer than 50-yards, or circle and cut off their path and limit their time to a half hour," said McCue

But those rules are broken regularly as KITV observes one company doing none of the above. It cuts in, dropping  snorklers in the water without stopping.

 "We want you to go out  to see dolphins in natural behaviors, not disturbance behaviors," McCue added.

 McCue has had sucess with four tour operators on Oahu and Kauai  agreeing to fly under the dolphin smart banner.

"We actually choose this cruise because they follow the rules and we really felt  that was important. No regrets at all," said dolphin enthusiasts Mero and Katherine Samuel.

Maui and Big Island companies are next in line.

Scientists want the companies to understand what's behind their guidelines.

That includes some basics, like spinning.  McCue says it could be a sign the dolphins are bothered.

And you have to understand their nature.The pods spend their nights fishing in deep waters and their days in cruise mode.

"This is a critical time for them in the daytime hours. They are caring for their young. They are resting. They are avoiding predators," McCue said. "They actually only sleep with one side of their brain at a time so the other time is to breathe be alert for predators things like that"

McCue hopes tour operators will also be alert.

"They do spread out along the coast into smaller groups ten to 30-40," added Griffin. "But when they get together and you see 150- 250  dolphins at one time. You never get tired of it,"

The hope is the dolphins don't tire of the attention either.

The National Marine Fisheries has not gone so far as to ban swimming with dolphins.

The agency has issued many warnings about harrassment of dolphins, and so far has issued only one notice of violation.

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