HONOLULU — Federal regulators are proposing limits on the popular Hawaii tourist activity of swimming with spinner dolphins out of fear that the practice is disrupting the daytime sleeping patterns of the nocturnal hunters.
The dolphins swim into bays along the coast of the Hawaiian Islands to sleep for most of the day, and then move into the deep-ocean to hunt small fish and other prey that rise from the depths at night. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says boats that take tourists to swim with the dolphins are actually inhibiting their sleep, although it may be hard for people to tell since the animals continue to swim and keep their eyes open.
NOAA's proposal, released on Tuesday, would ban being within 50 yards of spinner dolphins, with some exceptions if they approach you, and apply to the 2 nautical miles around the main Hawaiian Islands.
"Dolphin-directed activities have grown dramatically in recent years, and the easily accessible Hawaiian spinner dolphins face heavy and increasing pressures from people seeking a dolphin experience," NOAA said in a statement.
The Associated Press reported that there are more than 200 dolphin-related tourism businesses operating in the state, and they will likely be impacted by the new regulation.
Richard Holland, who operates the tour company Dolphins and You, told BuzzFeed News he was against the ban on dolphin encounters.
"Would we be impacted? Yes, possibly, because some people are just interested in the dolphin swims," Holland said of his Oahu-based operation.
Spinner dolphins get their name for their amazing above-water shows, and are especially known for being able to leap 14 times in a row.
"We bring a lot of business to the state. We pay a lot of taxes. We pay our harbor fee," Holland added. "If they shut down those businesses out there, the state will be negatively impacted."
Ann Garrett, who works for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told BuzzFeed News that tour operators would still be able to view the animals "but at a distance that would cause less disturbance and still allow for a rewarding dolphin encounter."
Garrett said she expected "the impact to dolphin viewing tours would be minimal," while acknowledging "there will likely be a loss of revenue to swim-with-wild-dolphin businesses," but that they could switch over to another type of tour.
"The expectations of tourists will have to change to accept dolphin viewing only and no swimming with wild dolphins," Garrett added.
An additional rule to prohibit activities during the dolphin's prime sleep time in tourist-heavy areas, such as Big Island's Kealakekua Bay and Maui's La Perouse Bay, is also being considered.
NOAA has a two month period to consider public input and said the prohibitions, if approved, would go into effect next year.