Protected Resources

Swimming with Wild Spinner Dolphins

Would you swim with Hawaiian spinner dolphins if you knew that they were trying to sleep?



Swimmers and boats that come to visit wild spinner dolphins in sheltered bays and coastlines during the day could potentially be disturbing a critical period of spinner dolphin rest and potentially be harming the dolphins. Hawaiian spinner dolphins feed off-shore at night and return to sheltered bays and coastlines during the day to rest and tend to their young.

To learn more, read the article, "A Hard Day's Night: Spinners Also Need Their Rest" (Oct 2006, pdf 5MB)

Drawing: Spinner dolphins rest in shallow bays during the day and feed in deeper waters at night. NOAA


When people swim with resting wild spinner dolphins, the dolphins may be drawn out of their resting state to investigate the swimmers. This may be a change in behavior which may constitute " harassment" under the Federal law that protects them and other marine mammals - the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance that has the potential to disrupt a marine mammal's behavior is "harassment" under this Act and is, therefore, against the law.


Even when spinner dolphins are swimming, they actually may still be resting and sleeping. When dolphins sleep they must be partially awake to keep breathing, so they swim slowly, occasionally surfacing for air, allowing half their brain to sleep at a time.


Photo: Hawaiian spinner dolphins resting in a sheltered, sandy bottom habitat.

If spinner dolphins are disturbed while in their nearshore resting habitat, they may be forced to move to a location not as favorable, putting themselves at risk of predation by animals, like sharks. They may also be forced to use more energy to reach their feeding grounds - energy that would otherwise be used to breed, nurse, and rear their young. Hawaiian spinner dolphins choose certain sheltered, sandy bottom areas to rest because they are close to their feeding sites. The white sand background also makes it easier for them to see predators.


Studies have shown that human interactions with wild dolphins may afect their behavior and populations.

Patterns of use of Makua Beach, Oahu, Hawaii, by spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) and potential effects of swimmers on their behavior (Oct 2005, pdf 791.5 kB)

Effects of vessels and swimmers on behavior of Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) in Kealakeakua, Honaunau, and Kauhako bays, Hawaii (Oct 2008, pdf 141.8 kB)

"Decline in Relative Abundance of Bottlenosed Dolphins Exposed to Long-Term Disturbance ( Nov 2006, pdf 175.8 kB)


Photo: Trainers use hand signals, whistles and positive reinforcement to communicate with bottlenose dolphins in human care. Photos of dolphins with people courtesy of Dolphin Quest.

The natural curiosity of wild dolphins should never be misinterpreted as "friendly" behavior in which they are purposefully seeking out human attention. Wild dolphins have unpredictable, untrained behaviors. Dolphins seen at marine parks are not "friendly" wild dolphins. These animals are trained dolphins that were either born or raised in human care.

Dolphins may approach people in the wild because they are naturally curious and may investigate unfamiliar objects in their habitat, but this is not safe for humans or the dolphins. The dolphins' natural behaviors are being disturbed when they abandon them to seek out humans.

These are wild animals, and as such, need to be respected. People also need to remember that wild dolphins have unpredictable behaviors. Dolphins seen in marine parks are federally permitted to be there and are trained dolphins that were either born or raised in human care, not "friendly" wild dolphins.

Please STAY SAFE and SHOW DOLPHINS ALOHA - Observe Them From A Distance

Current NOAA Fisheries Dolphin Viewing Guidelines:

NOAA Fisheries Policy on Human Interactions With Wild Marine Mammals:

The MMPA does not provide for a permit or other authorization to view or interact with wild marine mammals, except for specific listed purposes such as scientific research. Therefore, interacting with wild marine mammals should not be attempted and viewing marine mammals must be conducted in a manner that does not harass the animals.

NOAA Fisheries does not support, condone, approve, or authorize activities that involve closely approaching, interacting, or attempting to interact with whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, or sea lions in the wild. This includes attempting to swim with, pet, touch, or elicit a reaction from the animals.

Outreach Materials

Protect Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins brochure (June 2010, pdf 500kB)

Protect Dolphins brochure (April 2007, pdf 454.6kB)

Spinner Dolphin Resting Area sign (June 2008, pdf 125 kB)

A Day in the Life of a Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin poster (Feb 2007, pdf 534kB)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins (Aug 2009, pdf 185 kB)


Dolphin SMART brochure

Hawaii Dolphin SMART brochure (Aug 2011, pdf 1.15MB)

"Look Before You Book"

NOAA currently has a recognition program for dolphin tour operators who have agreed to abide by a code of conduct that minimizes harassment to wild dolphins by engaging in responsible viewing and advertising practices. This program, Dolphin SMART, began in the Florida Keys and has now been successfully implemented in Orange Beach, Alabama and along the south, central west coast of Florida. NOAA is implementing the Dolphin SMART program here in Hawaii.

Check the following website in the future for links to Hawaii's Dolphin SMART tour operators:

Learn more about Hawaiian spinner dolphins and dolphin-tourism research:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) sheet: Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins (Jan 2011, pdf 246.25kB)
NOAA Fisheries, Protected Resources Division, Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins