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.

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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

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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."

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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. 

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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.

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