Are Tour Boats Hurting Dolphins?

Dr. Dave Johnston
Dr. Dave Johnston
Chris Yates
Chris Yates

KAPOLEI (KHNL) -- They're cute and the acrobatic tricks they perform make them popular with tourists. People literally come from all over the world to watch spinner dolphins in Hawaiian waters.

Spinner dolphins are so named because they often jump and spin through the air. But unlike most people, they eat and play at night, and rest during the day. So some scientists fear this difference could hurt dolphins in the long run.

Boats head out with groups of tourists eager to see spinner dolphins. A popular activity, but some scientists are worried.

"Recent studies show tourism effects on spinner dolphins can change their residency patterns in bays, change how long they spend in those bays," said Dr. Dave Johnston, a dolphin specialist with the Joint Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Research. "We're concerned this might translate into population level effects and reduce population levels here in Hawai'i."

Johnston fears what's happened in other areas could happen here.

"We don't have direct evidence of that here in Hawai'i but it has been demonstrated in other areas," said Johnston. "In New Zealand and Australia, very intensive tour operations that focus on dolphins have adversely affected the populations."

They had fewer offspring, which means fewer dolphins overall. The reason people can be disruptive is because spinner dolphins are night mammals.

"The analogy I like to use is if you stay up late at night or if you can't sleep at night and then you go to work the next day, you're not going to be working at top form. The same is true for these animals," said Chris Yates, an administrator for protected resources for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA has started a public dialogue, getting input from scientists and others, while looking into possible laws protecting the species.

Already, there are guidelines:

1. Remain at least 50 yards away from the animals.

2. Try not to disturb them when they're in bays and when they're in resting mode.

3. Only go out early morning late or late afternoon.

If you're on a boat mid-day, chances are the dolphins are hiding or sleeping.

"It's much nicer to actually see them what they do best," said Johnston. "They're spinner dolphins; they corkscrew through the air and that's what people like to see."

The captain of the tourist boat we saw today says he's in favor of some regulation, but too much would be bad for his industry.