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Authorities investigate 33 swimmers caught on camera ‘harassing’ dolphins in Hawaii


A short clip of a group of swimmers in a sunny Hawaiian bay released Tuesday by the state Department of Lands and Natural Resources was not an advertisement for tourists or sightseers. It was evidence of a federal crime, authorities said.

The swimmers in the video appeared to be heading towards a pod of dolphins, coming within meters of the animals as the dolphins moved away.

A press release from the Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources accused 33 swimmers of “aggressively pursuing, rounding up and harassing” the pod of dolphins – a violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act which in 2021 added additional protections for spinner dolphins in Hawaii. The species is particularly vulnerable to human activity in the bays of Hawaii, according to the researchers.

“It was just crazy to watch,” Stephanie Stack, chief research biologist at the Pacific Whale Foundation, told The Washington Post. “The sheer number of people swimming directly over these dolphins…it’s quite shocking.”

A spokesman for the Department of Lands and Natural Resources said the dolphins caught by the swimmers were spinner dolphins. Department officers met with the swimmers after discovering them on patrol Sunday morning and notified them of the violation before initiating an investigation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to the department’s press release.

Despite federal protections, which prohibit swimmers or boats from approaching within 50 yards of a spinner dolphin in Hawaii, awareness of the harms of swimming near them still lags among the public , experts told the Post.

“It’s a tricky situation,” Stack said. “A lot of people feel empowered to swim with wildlife and have that experience, so it can be a contentious issue. I think we have to remember that this is their home.

Spinner dolphins divide their “home” into separate areas for sleeping and feeding, “much like a bedroom and a dining room,” said Lars Bejder, director of the marine mammal research program at the University. from Hawaii.

The dolphins congregate during the day to roost in sheltered bays like Hōnaunau Bay, a popular snorkeling destination on the island of Hawaii where the 33 swimmers were spotted. They then venture into deeper water to feed at night, Bejder said. Avoiding swimmers during the day costs dolphins the energy and rest they need to hunt and reproduce.

“If you go to bed at night and someone bangs on the drums outside your bedroom window, you won’t be able to get much sleep, will you?” he said.

Research has found a variety of ripple effects of human-induced disturbance on spinner dolphin roost, including increased predation by sharks and decreased reproductive rates, Stack said. Dolphins could also abandon bays they previously frequented, she added.

“They’re under chronic stress,” she said. “Like everything, they need rest.”

Spinner dolphins are not an endangered species, but Stack said precautionary efforts such as Marine Mammal Protection Act restrictions — and enforcement of those restrictions — are needed to keep them alive. ensure they don’t slide into a more precarious situation. Bejder added that authorities need public buy-in and tourists are resisting expectations to swim with dolphins.

“I think if you ask most local Hawaiians…they’d be okay with it,” Bejder said. “The vast majority of people will think it’s good to leave these animals alone.”

A NOAA spokesperson did not comment specifically on the recent investigation, but said violators of the law could face fines.

“NOAA urges members of the public to view marine animals from a safe and respectful distance,” the spokesperson said.


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