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Dolphin Smart in Hawaii and Florida

Dolphin Smart - Swimming with Wild Dolphins

WIld Dolphin Foundation endorses the West Hawaii Voluntary Standards for Marine Tourism

Is putting WIld Dolphins in tanks, Dolphin Smart?

Dolphin Smart update

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Dolphin Smart NOAA

Dolphin Smart WDCS

WDCS Policy On Swimming With Dolphins


Island of Hawaii Forum: Kayaking and Swimming with Dolphins--What's the Issue?

"Dolphin Smart"?

Regulations regarding wild dolphin encounters in Hawaii (Oahu in particular) have not changed in the last few years. However, operators are adding and/or upsizing dolphin-focused boats and/or adding more trips per day. 

The Wild Dolphin Foundation, its members and the Waianae Coast community worked to implement enforceable, effective and culturally-correct regulations to protect the resident pods of Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins for close to a decade.

In a weak response, NOAA implemented the same Florida, and later Alabama, bottlenose dolphin-based Dolphin Smart program in Hawaii. The biggest downrall being there is admittedly no enforcement aspect to this program - a criteria pinpointed by community stakeholders as crucial.

The program instituted in Alabama was through a collaboration of six agencies. But while more than half of the 26 dolphin watch operators in the area expressed a strong desire for dolphin industry regulations - when Dolphin Smart was introduced, only ONE operator signed up. The program guidelines just didn't make sense - nor did they address the impacts that operators were witnessing.

Following the lack-of-enforcement train of thought, notice that the one Dolphin Smart Violation (picture taken w/in 50 yardsoperator who did sign up for the Florida program being used in Alabama, has a customer photo on their comments page that shows a picture (to the right) seemingly taken at less than the "Dolphin Smart" required 50 yard distance.

This violating operator is the sole benefactor of the collaborative marketing power of 6 governmental and non-profit agencies. Likewise, the same agencies do not seem to have been able to change the practices of a single operation through Alabama's Dolphin Smart program.

Florida's operators formed their own alliance in 1997, and designed a quite effective Code of Ethics and Operator Guidelines. None of these allied operators will be found as participants of Dolphin Smart, nor did NOAA take a cue from the consensus of the Florida Keys Wild Dolphin Alliance as to guidelines that might actually work in this area.

In Hawaii, while a significant portion of dolphin tour operators run afternoon trips (during prime dolphin resting hours), dolphin-watching Ocean Joy Cruises, eager to sign on to NOAA's program, advertises being on the water, with dedicated dolphin-focused time, from 8am until 7:30pm, all day long.

As spinner dolphins (the dolphins targeted by "Ocean Joy") are nocturnal and sleep during the day (as reported on NOAA's Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin site), visiting them all the day long hours (especially mid-day) would NOT seem to be a "dolphin smart" practice.

Perhaps the two greatest ironies in NOAA's Hawaii effort are that 1) NOAA's chief concern is that "repeated disturbances and diminishing availability of adequate resting habitat may lower dolphin population levels and harm individual animals (through reductions in foraging efficiency, predator avoidance, and reproductive fitness)."

However, NOAA's solution is centered on "swimming with dolphins" and suggests to go swim with captive dolphins as the answer to vessel-based traffic in Hawaii.

Vessel congestion (repeated disturbances) or harmful techniques (leapfrogging, loud engines, circling) are not even acknowledged, while the webpage linked in the paragraph above spins off as if an info-mercial to blatantly promote the use of dolphins in captivity.

"Don't swim with dolphins in the wild, but do take them from homes and families, and put them in tanks for humans to swim with dolphins there." Not to mention the attacks on people by captive dolphins - very rare in the wild, never in Hawaii.

Moreover, dolphin-watching boats regularly encourage energetic aerial activities and bow-riding to delight their guests (remember these dolphins are supposed to be sleeping during the day), while swim-with boats ideally prefer calm laid-back dolphins to slip into the water near. It would seem that switching swimming-with to boat-based dolphin watching is not singularly advantageous, will not significantly reduce congestion problems, nor is it the solution proposed by the resident communities or stakeholders for these particular dolphins.

And 2) over 90% of swim-with-dolphin tourists on Oahu are coming from Japan and will probably never be exposed to (or perhaps care about) if operators are deemed "Dolphin Smart" by NOAA, or any other US-based standard.

But then again, even a six year old can see when things are Just Not Right.

This 2012 study in Australia (link below), shows the same lack of compliance to un-enforced rules, as does the NOAA Dolphin Smart program . Easy to 'sign on', and easy to proceed with business as normal.

Leia Howesa, Carol Scarpacia and Edward Christien M. Parsons, 2012, Ineffectiveness of a marine sanctuary zone to protect burrunan dolphins (Tursiops australis sp.nov.) from commercial tourism in Port
Phillip Bay, Australia

Dolphin Smart in Hawaii - Part 2 of the Dolphin Smart Series

To put our contribution dollars to the very best use, we do not publish printed materials. You will find much of our information posted on this website. We respond to all email, but unfortunately, as many hours are spent in the field, we do not have staff to regularly answer phone calls.