NOAA, the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has taken social distancing to the seas this week, finalizing a new prohibition on getting too close to Hawaiian spinner dolphins. From October 28, swimming with, approaching, or remaining within 50 yards (45.7 meters) of the acrobatic animals will be banned within two nautical miles from the main Hawaiian Islands, as well as within waters bounded by the islands of Lāna‘i, Maui, and Kahoʻolawe.
“Like all animals, Hawaiian spinner dolphins need rest,” NOAA explained in a news release. “Spinner dolphins are nocturnal feeders that perform critical resting behaviors during the day while in safe, nearshore areas. But for decades, spinner dolphins in Hawaiʻi have experienced intense viewing pressure from commercial and recreational wildlife viewers seeking close encounters with the charismatic marine mammals.”
It's not just swimmers who are affected by the prohibition: it applies to any vessel or object, “including all boats, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, drones, or any other means,” NOAA clarifies. Attempting to circumvent the ban via “interception” – that is, placing yourself or your vessel in the path of a dolphin so that the spinner comes within 50 yards of you – is also covered by the rule.
The ban is a crucial move for the dolphins’ health and wellbeing, NOAA explained.
“Chronic exposure to human activities in their daytime essential habitat may place resident populations of spinner dolphins at risk through habitat displacement or reduced health,” the agency said. “Even though spinner dolphins can simply ‘swim away’ […] doing so interrupts their rest.”
Although harassment of spinner dolphins is already prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, repeated forced interactions with humans have continued to occur. The charismatic cetaceans’ spins and leaps are a favorite of sightseers in Hawaii, and unscrupulous tour companies have become responsible for increasingly intense encroachments into their habitat. Coping with these space invasions puts the dolphins into a permanent state of vigilance and interrupts their ability to hunt and nurture their young.
As well as the 50-yard ban, NOAA has also proposed a rule to establish time-area closures of certain spinner resting areas. These five nearshore areas – found in of Kealakekua, Hōnaunau, Kauhakō (Ho‘okena), and Makako Bays on Hawai‘i Island, and La Perouse Bay on Maui – are designated as essential daytime habitats for the dolphins, and the proposed rule would prohibit entering the zones between 6 am and 3 pm.
“Close interactions between humans and spinner dolphins continue to occur despite the prohibitions, guidelines, outreach, and stewardship efforts that were already in place,” concluded NOAA’s press release. “Based on the best available scientific information, we have determined that additional regulations are required to protect Hawaiian spinner dolphins from activities that result in harassment and other forms of disturbance.”