Animals Up Close: A Guide To Ethical Dolphin Tourism

Swimming with the dolphins in Hawaii is often of a big part of the traveler’s paradise dream, but is the practice really safe for animals? The answer might surprise you.

Related To:

We spoke to the director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Lars Bejder, who has been studying the effects of whale and dolphin tourism for 25 years, about the impact of dolphin tours. He says spinner dolphins are different than others around the world, and their particular habits make them especially susceptible to being easily disrupted by people who may invade their habitat in search of the perfect up-close experience.

Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins

487856987

487856987

Dolphin performing in lagoon of Huahine

Photo by: iStock/dstone6

iStock/dstone6

It’s important to understand that spinner dolphins, the kind found off the coast of Hawaii, have a very special routine. According to Bejder, they can find it distressing when their very particular schedules are disrupted. Much like humans, spinners have designated times and particular spaces for activities like eating, sleeping and socializing. Tourists who are unaware could accidentally barge into the wrong place at the wrong time inside the dolphin habitat, which could cause major stress for the entire pod.

"What we're finding is that these animals actually start resting later in the day and end earlier," says Laura McCue, a fishery biologist with the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, who has extensive experience with Hawaiian spinner dolphins. "It's one of the most important behaviors for their health and survival, so when that's impacted, it has effects on their behavior and health."

917912238

917912238

a pod of spinner dolphins in the Hawaiian island, photo taken in the Na Pali Coast of the island of Kauai, Hawaii

Photo by: iStock/YinYang

iStock/YinYang

What To Look For

It's easy to spot the best place to give your business when searching for dolphin tours. Dolphin SMART is a special program that is backed by NOAA. You can be confident that any business with the SMART certification is doing right by marine life in the area. They allow noninvasive observation that will not disturb the dolphin habitat, but still allow for some amazing views since spinners are known for their awesome aerial displays. Bejder says it's best to avoid taking a boat or swimming into their critical habitats, opting for a less invasive method of observation. 

477624754

477624754

Wild dolphins living in 3 hours away island from Tokyo

Photo by: iStock/ShinOkamoto

iStock/ShinOkamoto

Should I Swim With Other Types of Dolphins?

Ultimately, the decision is up to you, but animal rights organization PETA strongly advises against swimming with dolphins at all. If you're worried about the health and well-being of dolphins but are set on swimming with them, avoid parks or places where the animals are captured and kept in enclosed tanks, as these cause serious problems for their mental and physical health by pulling them out of their natural habitat. The safest choice for humans and dolphins is to stick to observing from a distance. 

Learn more about how to be respectful of dolphins and their habitat by following Lars Bejder on Twitter, and visiting the Marine Mammal Research Program's Facebook Page.

Keep Reading

Next Up

A Guide to Camping With Infants and Toddlers

If you enjoy camping and nature, don't be intimidated to bring infants and toddlers with you.

Ski Guide: Squaw Valley, California

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows offers thrill-seekers 6,000 skiable acres. From easy slopes to challenging bowls, there's something for the entire family.

5 Ways to Conquer Europe’s Most Active Volcano

Mount Etna towers over the island of Sicily, spewing fumes, ash and lava in a constant reminder that our planet is still untamed. Here’s how you can visit it.

Destin Travel Guide

Sandy beaches, fresh seafood, great golfing and moderately-priced hotels are just some of the reasons why a you should plan a trip to Destin, FL.

Whistler Blackcomb Ski Guide

Skiers and snowboarders can test their skills on terrain used at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Ski Guide: Vail, Colorado

Home to more groomed terrain than any other resort on the planet, Vail is North America's top ski resort.

Ski Guide: Alta, Utah

Deep powder and rugged terrain are what make Alta, UT world famous.

Ski Guide: Kitzbühel, Austria

With its convenient location and legendary skiing, Kitzbühel is one of Europe's most popular winter destinations.

Ski Guide: Mt. Tremblant

Beautiful skiing combined with the joie de vivre of Quebec's French heritage, minus the cost of a trans-Atlantic flight.

Ski Guide: Zermatt, Switzerland

This picture-perfect alpine skiing village has a convenient ski area high in the Alps, where the winter weather is ideal and the skiing is world-class.

On TV

What's New in Interests

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss Travel Channel in your favorite social media feeds.