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Wildlife woes: 33 swimmers accused of harassing dolphins in Hawaii

Drone footage shows the group of snorkelers actively pursuing a pod of spinner dolphins, which is illegal under federal law.
Dolphins evading swimmers in Hawaii's Hōnaunau Bay.
Posted at 1:17 PM, Mar 29, 2023

Hawaiian authorities said a group of 33 people have been referred to U.S. law enforcement for harassing a pod of spinner dolphins earlier this week.

The group of swimmers were "aggressively pursuing, corralling, and harassing" the dolphins in Hawaii's Hōnaunau Bay, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DOCARE) said in a press release.

The agency also shared aerial drone footage of the incident, which they said confirms the harassment. Uniformed officers were waiting for the swimmers when they returned to shore.

A joint investigation has been launched by Hawaii's DOCARE and the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, the statement said.

It is illegal under federal law to swim within 50 yards of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Those who do find themselves near one must make an immediate effort to move away and not engage with the animal in any way.

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Hawaiian spinner dolphins have a rigid schedule. They spend their nights offshore in large groups, feeding on fish and crustaceans, then return back near shore during the day to avoid predators and rest.

While it may appear spinner dolphins are awake in the daytime, they actually keep half of their brains alert while they sleep, swimming back and forth to avoid obstacles and surface for air.

Research shows spinners are disturbed by humans about 82% of the time they're trying to rest. That's the equivalent of someone bothering you for more than six hours every night.

In 2021, a boat tour operator was fined $2,500 for circling a group of Hawaiian spinner dolphins and dropping off passengers in their path.

“We’ve been saying for years that people need to be mindful of the way they conduct their activities near dolphins, and maintain a respectful distance so the dolphins can carry out their normal behaviors," said Ann Garrett, Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources at the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office.