Federal authorities are investigating an incident in which a group of swimmers allegedly harassed a pod of dolphins in violation of federal law.
The incident, which occurred on Sunday in Hōnaunau Bay, was captured on video by officers with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources using a drone.
The video allegedly shows the swimmers “aggressively pursuing, corralling, and harassing the pod,” which could put them in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Act, which was enacted in 1972, makes it illegal to harass wild marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, seals, and sea lions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there are two levels of harassment: one that refers to “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance” that could injure a marine mammal, and another that refers to “acts that have the potential to disturb (but not injure) a marine mammal” by disrupting their breeding, feeding, and other routines.
The spinner dolphins involved in the incident are also protected by a specific rule published in 2021 that prohibits swimmers and vessels from coming within 150 feet of the dolphins within two miles of the Hawaii shoreline. Spinner dolphins are known for leaping and spinning out of the water and may be sleeping even when they appear to be awake and moving through the water. This is because half of their brains remain “awake” while they swim, helping them to breathe and remain on the surface of the water.
Disturbing spinner dolphins could disrupt their daytime rest, negatively impacting their health and reproduction and leading them to become aggressive or avoidant. NOAA warns that the allegations of harassment could have serious consequences for the swimmers involved, who could face legal consequences for their actions.