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Tour operator opinions vary on proposed rule that would limit swimming with dolphins

Updated: 
August 25, 2016 - 12:05am

WATERS OFF KAILUA-KONA — Heading north from Keauhou Bay on Thursday morning, Capt. Erika Swenson briefed the passengers on the rules of the Dolphin Discoveries cruise.

She explained to the dozen on board how the animals rested, how they interacted with people and how people should interact with them.

“Remember, these are wild dolphins and we are in their home,” she told the group of repeat guests, honeymooners and locals.

Slightly south of La’aloa Beach Park, the Whalesong crew spotted the dolphins swimming, leaping and spinning.

Swenson moved the boat into the area and waited for the dolphins to check out the Whalesong and two other boats to determine if the animals were interested.

“The pool is open,” she then called to the crowd, and in moments, the people went into the ocean.

Within minutes, dolphins were examining the swimmer, coming within inches of the curious, excited humans.

Richard Alfaro, of San Francisco, was moving along in the water when several dolphins came up behind him, suddenly surrounding him before moving on.

“It was very surreal,” he called out to the crew.

Pulling himself aboard the boat he said, “they’re so much more efficient than we are in the water.”

The vessel remained stationary, sending the swimmers in again when the dolphins returned to the area.

Asked about the feds proposed rule to prevent people from approaching within 50 yards of the Hawaiian spinner dolphin, Larry Machado said, “It didn’t seem we had done anything to disturb them.”

He and his wife, Julie Machado, have visited and admired dolphins since the 1980s.

Julie said she hasn’t seen any reduction in the number of dolphins in that time. That is in part because people have been “very respectful” of the animal, she said.

Reasons behind the proposal

The proposed rule is one of multiple options considered by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to protect the dolphin population.

“Dolphin-directed activities have grown dramatically in recent years, and the easily accessible Hawaiian spinner dolphins face heavy and increasing pressures from people seeking a dolphin experience. Chronic disturbance to resting activities can negatively affect the health and fitness of dolphins,” NOAA fisheries wrote.

A nocturnal species, spinner dolphins rest during the day in shallow bays after hunting fish and crustaceans at night.

The rule change would cause dramatic shifts in how many companies operate and advertise.

About half of the tours operated by Dolphin Discoveries involve a dolphin swim, while Rob Hemsher of Ocean Eco Tours — another company — estimates losing the dolphin swims would eliminate about 30 percent of his business.

On Thursday, Dolphin Discoveries sent out two boats for a combined dolphin swim and snorkeling trip. The vessels cap out at 16 passengers, with two crew members.

Opinions varied among the those who work in the popular Hawaiian activity that may end if proposed federal regulations go into effect.

The dolphins, for example, were also coming up on the beginning of their rest period, where they rest half of their brain at a time. That’s the time Claudia Merrill, co-owner of Dolphin Discoveries, thinks the dolphins should be protected, rather than when they are interested with meeting people.

Opinions split

However, the idea of people swimming with the dolphins does not sit well with all tour operators.

Kohala Divers doesn’t run dolphin swims, in part because of concerns about what the interaction does to the animals. It’s been a policy since the business was established 37 years ago.

“What are people doing when they drop people off on top of the dolphins?” asked Keleen Lum of Kohala Divers.

During the mornings, Kohala Divers boats are sometimes accompanied by the sentries of the pods, she said, but the boat crews don’t linger in the area.

“If they happen to go by, awesome,” she said.

Lum thinks the disruption to the dolphin’s rest cycle is too much, and agrees there should be an end to dolphin swims. But the distance ban may not be the best idea, she said. The dolphins do like to come up and spin in a boat’s wake, she said.

The sentries “sure like to surf the wake,” she said.

They are also known to “drift” off a boat’s bow, apparently saving energy.

Not only do the animals come toward vessels, the distance ban could lead to trouble with local harbors, said Merrill.

Two popular areas for the dolphins are near Kailua Bay and near Honokohau Harbor, both active harbors on the Kona Coast. A limited area could put everything from the fishing boats to cruise ships in violation, she said.

NOAA advanced an exception for vessels operating where a 50-yard distance would make safe navigation impossible.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources announced Wednesday its support of the rule.

“We believe NOAA’s preferred option is reasonable. Two of the five initial alternatives involved closing off entire areas designated as essential daytime habitats. We felt that was going a little too far, but we can support approach rules and eliminating swim-with-dolphins activities,” wrote Bruce Anderson, administrator of the Division of Aquatic Resources in a press release.

Additionally, he said there was no obvious reason to limit the region to two miles. Instead, he wrote, the area should cover the entire exclusive economic zone, which reaches outward 200 miles.

The federal government evaluated various options including time and area limits, additional regulations during swimming times and allowing the current arrangement to continue, among others.

Merrill, of Dolphin Discoveries, sees the rule as an overreaction and an unnecessary attempt to break new ground.

She referred to the actions of the Coral Reef Alliance, an organization that instituted voluntary rules to ensure the sustainability of sea and reef activities. Those voluntary rules could be made compulsory, she said.

It could have a similar effect to the 2013 rules instituted to protect the Captain Cook Monument, she said.

There “the proliferation and use of unpermitted kayak rentals” led to the DLNR instituting a permit process. Currently there are three companies allowed to do so. They are also responsible for enforcing the rules and could be fined or lose their permits.

Unforeseen consequences?

Cutting off access entirely could also lead to a worse situation, said Hemsher, of Ocean Eco Tours.

Companies that are following the rules would stop visiting, he said, leaving the sea open to scofflaws. He also questioned if there would be enforcement, which he views as lacking for existing rules.

That was a similar concern for Kriss Holm, cruise supervisor for Dolphin Discoveries.

They’ve sent photos of companies violating wildlife rules and seen no response, she said.

“We want to make it a sustainable environment and commodity,” Holm said.

There will be two public meetings on the Big Island, both from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. On Sept. 7, the meeting will be at Konawaena High School and on Sept. 8 at Kealakehe High School.

Comments can also be submitted through Oct. 23 online at www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-2005-0226 via the Federal eRulemaking Portal or by mailing Susan Pultz, Branch Chief, Conservation Planning and Rulemaking, Protected Resources Division, National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Regional Office, 1845 Wasp Blvd, Bldg 176, Honolulu, HI 96818, Attn: Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin Disturbance.

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