The Green Leaf

Swimming with dolphins

August 14th, 2013
Spinner dolphin leaping from the ocean. Photo credit: SAPPHIRE Project under NOAA Scientific Permit.

Spinner dolphin leaping from the ocean. Photo credit: SAPPHIRE Project under NOAA Scientific Permit.

I've loved dolphins since I was a kid.

To me, they are magical, beautiful creatures with a fun and playful side. Intelligent, too. A recent study from the Dolphin Research Center in Grass Keys, Fla. indicates dolphins are smart enough to problem solve in much of the same way that humans do.

So I am in kind of a dilemma when it comes to swim-with-dolphin programs and marine amusement parks. While I want my 3-year-old son to experience the wonder of dolphins (all kids love dolphins), I hesitate to bring him to one after watching a documentary like "The Cove" (2009) and interviews with marine mammal activist Ric O'Barry.

O'Barry, who was the dolphin trainer for the popular TV show "Flipper" at the Miami Seaquarium, is now an activist calling attention to the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, from September to April. O'Barry became an activist after one of the dolphins playing Flipper died in his arms — ever since, he's spoken out against keeping dolphins in captivity or training them to do tricks for human entertainment. O'Barry urges people not to buy a ticket to a dolphin show.

As a kid, I went to a number of amusement parks — I still have a vivid memory of a bottlenose dolphin coming up to me when I was 6 or 7 years old at an underwater aquarium, and "greeting" me from behind the window. It was vertical, floating upright with both flippers out and what looked like a smile on its face.

Given what I know now, though, I'm refraining from taking my son to any marine amusement parks.

Here in Hawaii we have tours that offer you a chance to see dolphins in the wild. That might be a better option, as long as you give dolphins respect and space (if you happen to see one while surfing or paddling, then cherish such a special gift but give them the same respect and space). It's also disturbing to see really aggressive tour operators circling the dolphins and letting their guests swim up to dolphins while they are trying to get some rest.

That's where The Nai‘a Guide, an app created by Duke University graduate Demi Fox aiming to be the "ecological conscience for tourists seeking to experience Hawaiian spinner dolphins"  comes in. The app was developed in partnership with NOAA's DolphinSMART program, which trains tour operators to voluntarily minimize harrassment to spinner dolphins and to encourage responsible viewing.

Dolphins are by nature, social and curious.

"Just as we are watching them, they are watching us," said Fox.

But they are also conscious breathers who must swim and move about while resting, which is what they are doing in sheltered bays and coastlines during the day when tourists are coming by in boats.

The DolphinSMART guidelines are spelled out in the word SMART. The "S" stands for staying back 50 yards from dolphins, "M" for move away cautiously if dolphins show signs of disturbance, "A" for always put your engine in neutral while dolphins are near, "R" for refrain from feeding, touching or swimming with wild dolphins and "T" for teach others to be dolphin smart.

If you are interested in learning more, Dr. Sarah Courbis, Research Associate at Portland State University, gives a lecture at the Pacific Whale Foundation's Discovery Center (oceanside lower level at Ma‘alaea Harbor Shops off Route 31, the Honoapiilani Highway) from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22. Her presentation, part of the foundations "Making Waves" lecture series, is titled "Hawaii's Dolphins: Human Impacts and Conservation Action." Free and open to the public.

The "Nai‘a Guide" (available free on iTunes for iPads) serves as an educational resource for the responsible viewing of wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii. Courtesy image.

The "Nai‘a Guide" (available free on iTunes for iPads) serves as an educational resource for the responsible viewing of wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii. Courtesy image.

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