For some people, going on vacation in a location noted for its marine life screams, “dolphins”. However, while viewing them in a Seaquarium may still be possible, it is definitely not okay to swim with them. In fact, it’s a federal offense, as these tourists in Hawaii found out.
On Tuesday Hawaii authorities referred 33 people to U.S. law enforcement after the group allegedly harassed a pod of wild dolphins in waters off the Big Island.
It’s against federal law to swim within 50 yards (45 meters) of spinner dolphins in Hawaii’s nearshore waters. The prohibition went into effect in 2021 amid concerns that so many tourists were swimming with dolphins that the nocturnal animals weren’t getting the rest they need during the day to be able to forage for food at night.
All dolphins and porpoises are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and some are also listed under the Endangered Species Act. This law is not new, though it was revised in 2021.
In 1972, the United States Congress enacted a law to protect dolphins and other marine mammals. This act, called the Marine Mammal Protection Act (“MMPA”), was passed because citizens and environmental groups were concerned that certain marine mammals were in danger of extinction or depletion due to human activity.
There is a misconception about the relationship between humans and dolphins. While people in the water may become objects of interest for nearby dolphins, their curiosity should not be misinterpreted as friendly behavior. A swimmer immersed in their habitat is above all, a foreign and unfamiliar object that needs to be investigated. You may be having fun, but by swimming with them, you are disrupting their natural behavior and forcing them to abandon their necessary activities such as resting, feeding and socializing. What’s more, you may force resting animals to move and expend energy. In short, you’re stressing them and harassing them.
Hawaii’s spinner dolphins feast on fish and small crustaceans that surface from the ocean’s depths at night. When the sun rises, they head for shallow bays to hide from tiger sharks and other predators. That’s where human involvement usually occurs.
To the untrained eye, the dolphins appear to be awake during the day because they’re swimming. But because they sleep by resting half of their brains and keeping the other half awake to surface and breathe, they may be sleeping even when they’re maneuvering through the water.
The rule to keep 50 yards between humans and dolphins applies to areas within 2 nautical miles (3.7 kilometers) of the Hawaiian Islands and in designated waters surrounded by the islands of Lanai, Maui and Kahoolawe.
The 33 swimmers were caught on camera according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Aerial footage shot by drone shows snorkelers following dolphins as they swim away. The department said its video and photos showed swimmers “who appear to be aggressively pursuing, corralling and harassing the pod.”
Enforcement officers contacted the group while they were in the water, and told them about the violation. Uniformed officers met the swimmers on land where state and federal officials launched a joint investigation.
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