Dolphin Swims on the Big Island

Sometimes there are no easy answers to complex problems. Dolphin swims on the Big Island have been around for several decades as a recreational activity. As visitors to the island we, like many others, enjoyed amazing experiences on dolphin swims with Dolphin

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Journeys’ Captain Nancy Sweatt. She always provided a high quality and very ethical experience, emphasizing respect for the spinner dolphins and other marine life we would see.

 

A dolphin swim is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had on land or in the water. Her boat, Dolphin TLC, would drop us off in an area where dolphins were sighted cruising in about 60 to 90 feet of water over light colored sand. We were instructed to wait for dolphins to come near on their own, and told not to pursue them or swim toward them. We watched, took photographs, and kept memories close to our hearts. These experiences caused us to do

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

more research on spinner dolphins and learn more about the controversies surrounding human interaction with them.

 

Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) spend their nights diving down as deep as 1,000 meters to feed on fish and squid. In the daytime they cruise to shallow bays (100 feet or less) usually over sand or an open bottom to rest. One side of their brain sleeps while the other keeps them cruising down near the bottom for several minutes with quick moves to the surface for a breath and then back to the bottom. They need this resting period each day to remain healthy and strong enough to head back out to deeper waters to feed.

 

Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

When we first went out with Dolphin Journeys, ours was often the only boat around, with just six swimmers and a crew member in the water to encourage respectful behavior. In recent years the number of operators has grown to a dozen or more in Kailua-Kona area alone. Dolphins in four bays on Hawaii and one on Maui might have as many as sixteen boats near them and 60 to 100 swimmers in the water each morning. Some boats have crew members helping and other seem to just drop their clients in the water, picking them up if the dolphins leave the area or their schedule dictates time to go.

 

Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has a policy and enforcement role related to marine mammals and they have set previous guidelines which include directions to not harass dolphins. Recently NOAA’s scientists have expressed concern about increased pressure on dolphins from swimmers, primarily associated with commercial boat tours but also in bays easily reached from the shore, such as Honaunau Bay.

 

A new proposal by NOAA will effectively ban dolphin swims from boats and in coastal waters throughout the islands. It will require swimmers to leave areas of a bay if dolphins come in to rest. NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office is holding six public hearings to get comments about the new regulations. I attended the first one at Konawaena High School and stayed for the first 3 hours of what likely turned out to be five or six hours of comments from 100 or more people with a total audience of 200 or more. As you might expect there were comments both directions – don’t change the regulations and implement the complete ban in coastal waters. Perhaps three-quarters at that meeting preferred the “no change” option.

 

My comments were from my unique perspective with more than four decades of working in interpretation of natural and cultural resources. Swimming near spinner dolphins is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had. While there are definitely differences in species and circumstances, the situation reminds me of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

 

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Mountain gorillas have come back from the brink of extinction in E. Africa. Tourism is a critical component for it pays for protection and helps people understand these poorly understood primate relatives of humans.

Researcher Dian Fosse opposed gorilla tourism. After her death, other biologists worked with government officials to develop gorilla tourism in hopes of saving habitat for and providing protection for gorillas. The mountain gorilla population was down to only 220 individuals. Largely due to the anti-poaching protection afforded by tourists with armed guides and guards, it has grown to more than 900 today. A strictly regulated number of tourists go out each day in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo with wild but habituated gorillas. Gorilla tourists often describe the experience as life changing. Swimming with dolphins has that feel also.

 

Who is helping people learn about dolphins and connect with these fascinating mammals since government agencies do not put ocean interpreters on the water with the public? More than 3,000 paid interpreters with National Park Service and 70,000 volunteers interpret 413 national parks, monuments and battlefields. A few dozen environmental educators and interpreters do similar duties in marine sanctuaries. For the most part, interpretation of dolphins and other marine mammals is left to private dolphin swim operators.

 

Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, you feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, we feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

I think these activities should be allowed with some reasonable and enforceable regulations, but the proposed regulations do not seem reasonable or enforceable. NOAA law enforcement representative indicated fines could be as much as $100,000 and a year in jail – just for swimming near dolphins. NOAA lacks the staff to actually monitor these rules and if they did make arrests and get convictions, the public relations reactions could be more damaging than helpful.

 

Most of us who have been near them in the water have stories of dolphins coming over to inspect us, sometimes playfully, sometimes slowly, watching with care. Several who gave comments told anecdotes of dolphins seeking human help to untangle fishing line from their flippers or tails.

 

Largely missed in this conversation is the opportunity for citizen science. If the researchers at NOAA provided survey forms and training to boat operators and dolphin watchers from the shore, data could be collected that might answer some of the many unanswered questions about these unique creatures. Are spinner dolphin populations increasing, staying the same or in decline? What time of day do they arrive at each bay and what time do they leave? What exactly do they do while resting if undisturbed and how does that differ from when they interact with humans? It was interesting that everyone in the room shared a passion for helping dolphins. How do we harness that passion and commonality?

 

Can dolphin watchers, lovers, swimmers and advocates be allowed some accommodation to sharing the waters of Hawaii?

 

If ever we needed more inter-species understanding it is now and those who love dolphins would enjoy being involved in better protection and interpretation of them. NOAA is an agency of science and policy charged with protecting oceans and the atmosphere. We do appreciate what they do as an agency. We also need a grand effort to interpret oceans and connect people with these vital bodies of water and their inhabitants. Here is a great chance to collaborate, protect and interpret these fascinating animals.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

 

Science Interpretation on a GRAND SCALE

Created at Wordle.net.

Created at Wordle.net.

Virtually all people everywhere enjoy the innovations of science but often without any appreciation of what it took to develop that innovation. We rely on and love our technology, but many people don’t seem to understand that the same scientists who bring us technology are the same ones who are telling us about the effects of humankind on global climate change. In some cases, our technological advances are creating adverse effects, while in others, the advances help mitigate those effects.

 

Science agencies like U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, USEPA and NOAA and the work that they support are often misunderstood at best or ignored at worst. In 1994, the Newt Gingrich and Richard Armey Contract with America planned to eliminate the entire budget for USGS. Gingrich and Armey did not appreciate that our understanding of weather, rainfall, earthquakes and other catastrophic events is dependent upon researchers in USGS, NOAA, NASA, USEPA and other science agencies.

 

Recently I read an article about Dr. David Scholnick of Pacific University. He takes the credit for putting shrimp on a treadmill, one of the many research projects that has come under fire by legislators and the public for wasting taxpayer dollars. He reports that it cost only $47 for the shrimp treadmill (out of his own pocket), not the 3 million dollars in taxpayer funds claimed in 2011 political campaigns. His research grants were not about getting shrimp to work out. Instead, they supported work to understand how shrimp react to infections in estuaries. This is critical to survival of important seafood sources and reflects ecosystem health in general. If you’ve ever eaten seafood of any kind, or spent time in the ocean, or understand that ocean waters cover three-quarters of the planet and have an impact on how the entire world functions, this research matters to you.

 

Eighty-year old Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma is soon to become Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He is also author of the 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. This top Congressional science official will encourage us to plunge our heads deeper into the sand, ignoring the obvious threats of climate change and our impacts on it. The divide between scientists and climate change deniers has never been greater.

 

The effort to help people understand global climate change is too little and too late so far. Sometimes the available information is simply too scientific and over the heads of the average citizen or elected official. We have a global crisis in UNDERSTANDING but no real emerging global effort to improve the situation. If the political will to act on multi-national climate change strategies across all political lines is lacking, how do we as a society change that?

 

We need a broad national strategy to help the public understand the growing impacts of global climate change. We are hammered by national ads for political candidates, the need to drill for more oil and support for a pipeline. Big money is behind the acceleration of global climate change, yet very little is spent to help people understand their role in the acceleration rate and future impacts of climate change. An investment in science interpretation is long overdue. We need more science interpretation, national ad campaigns, and cross-agency collaboration to make it happen. It’s never too late to slow the rate, but much of the damage is already done. We each need to keep encouraging our elected representatives to do more in support of science education and interpretation. The future of our grandchildren depends on it.

 

– Tim Merriman