OAHU, Hawaii -- Swimming with dolphins is a popular activity for many tourists in Hawaii, but a proposed federal rule could lead to a dramatic change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wants to ban boats and swimmers from getting too close to Hawaiian spinner dolphins.
Native to Hawaii, the spinner dolphins are a smaller species known for their acrobatic behavior, reports CBS News correspondent Carter Evans. In the water they seem curious and approach us – and several swim right underneath.
But our guide, Jenna Morris, is serious about keeping our distance. She doesn't want people to touch the dolphins.
"Single handedly, the hardest part of my job is managing expectations that people have," Morris said.
Current law prohibits "harassing" dolphins, but it doesn't limit how close you can get to them – and many people have taken advantage. Online videos show swimmers frolicking with the dolphins and even trying to pet them.
"I do think that this human activity is raising their stress levels," NOAA fisheries biologist Ann Garrett said.
Garrett said spinner dolphins are nocturnal and feed at night. They come close to shore during the day to rest in protected shallow waters where tour boats are a disturbance.
"What we're seeing is that their rest times are shortening," Garrett said, adding, "The dolphins, we're concerned with, may be not feeding as well, may be too tired to do the foraging they need to do… and are perhaps not nurturing their young in the way they ought to."
Over time, Garrett said this could lead to a decrease in the population. NOAA is now proposing changes to the current law that would keep people and boats at least 50 yards from the dolphins.
Dolphin Excursions' Victor Lozano is one of many tour operators against the proposed rule. He said it would be difficult to keep the dolphins away from boats, and difficult for tourists to see them at that distance – which could hurt business. But he agrees there are too many tours and not every tour company is following the rules.
"We're all making a living, we need to protect it. We need to make sure we're responsible in how we're viewing these animals," Lozano said.
Sabrina Kranz and her daughter try to swim with the dolphins whenever they visit Hawaii. This time may be their last.
"I don't think these tours are hurting them right now, as long as everyone listens," she said.
"What is it about getting up so close to the dolphins that's so special?" Evans asked.
"It's just being in nature in its pure form. You get to see them do their thing. It's just beautiful," Kranz said.