Dolphin – Friendly Eco-Tours
While none of us would choose this pandemic as the vehicle to give our earth and sea a respite from our frenetic and, at times, destructive human activity, it has provided that silver lining. With less boat traffic locally, we see our dolphin calves enjoying free rein in the back bay, their protective mothers able to let their guard down for a much-needed rest.
We look forward to the time when we can return to our beautiful beaches, but we can make wise use of this time-out by considering specific ways we can help to ensure the well-being and future of our dolphin family.
We are fortunate to have several devoted wildlife advocates and responsible tour guides in our beach community who provide insight into proper and enjoyable dolphin viewing. One of these is zoologist and master naturalist Robert Howell. A boat captain, as well, Howell has six years of experience on the water and has led dolphin tours by both boat and kayak.
An engaging educator and interpretative guide, Howell also has experience in manatee rescue, which includes rehabilitating and releasing an orphaned manatee. He is a powerful advocate for our dolphin family and well-versed on the federal dolphin viewing guidelines set out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Howell notes that while dolphins can reach speeds up to 25 mph for short periods of time, their average speed is 3 to 6 mph. When calves are in a group, the pace can be even slower. When operating a boat or personal watercraft, it would be easy to chase dolphins and disrupt their natural behavior. In the worst case, we could cause them serious distress or physical injury.
“Dolphins Being Dolphins”
It is for that reason that NOAA encourages boat and Jet Ski tours to approach dolphins no closer than 50 yards, or 150 feet. This distance might seem excessive, but experience proves that when dolphins do not feel pursued or threatened, they often approach boats quite closely, on their own terms. While serving as a guide on a dolphin tour boat, Howell consistently set an excellent example in keeping that safe distance. Without resorting to the use of sounds to lure the dolphins closer, people on the tour were able to see “dolphins simply being dolphins,” without unnatural human interference.
Howell acknowledges that dolphins enjoy jumping in the wake of a boat, however, there are good reasons why we should not encourage it. Dolphin mothers can lose track of their vulnerable calves while caught up in the thrill of the ride, and at times, calves are never reunited with their mothers. The calf itself can be pulled toward the boat and be maimed or killed by the propeller. There is no doubt that watching a dolphin jump in the wake of a boat provides an easy photo op, but no photograph is worth the life of a dolphin.
It is only natural that the sight of dolphins jumping or playing together causes vessels to slow down and take notice. It is actually good to slow down when you spot dolphins. There is a danger, however. Corralling or surrounding dolphins is clearly labeled as harassment by NOAA and is specifically mentioned and illustrated in its dolphin viewing guide. Dolphins often hunt prey by circling them and when dolphins find themselves in that position, it can cause them stress, particularly if calves are among the group.
Howell notes that we have had problems locally with groups of Jet Skis circling or surrounding dolphins to get a closer look or to incite them to jump. Our local NOAA representative has asked anyone who witnesses such behavior to record it, if possible, and to call 800-853-1964 to report the incident. In 2017, a boat captain in Hawaii was charged and convicted for circling dolphins to get them to jump in his wake. Howell feels that informing both the public and tour operators about such actions will effect positive change.
Howell offers other observations on how we can work together to protect our dolphins. “Boaters need to be more aware of and respect the designated slow Manatee Zones,” he says. “These areas often provide sanctuary for both manatee and dolphin calves. Dolphins in general, and calves, in particular, can easily be maimed or killed by a speeding boat or Jet Ski.”
It is no surprise that, as an educator, Howell encourages us all to educate others on proper dolphin viewing protocol and to speak up if we see someone endangering an animal. “Never be afraid to speak up when you see something wrong,” he says. “It’s absolutely necessary to protect our wildlife.”
Guides Can Set Good Example
Howell emphasizes that tour guides have a responsibility to set a good example on proper dolphin interaction. “They are, in effect, teaching their guests how to act around dolphins. That can have a positive or negative impact on our dolphins for years to come,” he says. “Education and accountability are key.”
Howell can certainly take that stand, having earned an excellent reputation as a dolphin tour guide from guests, other captains, and locals alike. He does fear that some tour operators do not yet fully recognize the danger of dolphins riding in their wake, but he hopes that will change soon with an increase in local educational programs, as well as an upcoming campaign to distribute NOAA pamphlets to both the public and Eco-tour businesses.
We have a beach community that truly cares about our wildlife, and we are fortunate to have naturalists and guides like Robert Howell serving as stewards of our dolphin pod. To quote Maya Angelou, “When you know better, do better.” That applies to tour operators and individuals alike.
Before booking a dolphin tour, call and ask what steps they take to ensure the safety of our dolphins and choose to support only those tours that respect our wildlife. When we work together for the good of our dolphin family, not only will our dolphins thrive, but our local tourism will benefit for years to come, as well.
Be a Pod Protector:
- Don’t feed or touch dolphins.
- Don’t corral or encircle dolphins with boats or personal watercraft.
- Don’t drive directly toward or over dolphins.
- Don’t deliberately encourage dolphins to jump in your wake.
- Don’t lure dolphins to you with loud noises, dolphin whistles or sounds.
- If you witness dolphin harassment, record if possible & call NOAA at 1-800-853-1964
by Monica Lynn
Photos by Monica Lynn