By Ashley Yeager

spinner dolphins

Spinner dolphins swimming just off the bow of a boat. Image courtesy of Dave Johnston, Duke.

Waianae, HI – Pet a dolphin for me, my sister texted as I stepped onto a catamaran in West Oahu. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that is exactly what I would NOT be doing, under any circumstances.

I have to admit that a little later, as a pod of wild spinner dolphins undulated just ahead of the bow of our boat, it was really hard not to reach out and try to touch one of them.

It was almost as if getting closer to the creatures as they slid through the water would free us, if only for a moment, from our artificial world of buildings, cars, computers and cell phones. But, in reality, interacting with spinners can’t take us away from our hyper-connected world, and chasing and touching the dolphins is not good for them either.

“If you try to play with spinners during the day, it’s like a stranger coming into your bedroom in the middle of the night and trying to wake you up,” says Nicholas School marine biologist Dave Johnston. He comes to Hawaii a few times each year to take photographs and other data on the islands’ spinner dolphins to learn more about their behaviors, population size and the bays they are swimming in during the day.

Spinner dolphins — Stenella longirostris – swim into shallow bays off Hawaii’s coast during the day to rest, turning off half of their brain at a time as they sleep. With one half on and one half off, they can still swim to the surface to breathe and ultimately recharge for the next night’s hunt.

But lots of vacationing people swimming and sailing in the bays aren’t thinking of the dolphins’ schedule and rest, they are only wanting to get closer to the wild animals. And the dolphins, much like humans, are curious. They’re going to check you out if you’re in their space, just like you would if you hear a strange noise in your room while your trying to sleep, our guides from Hawaii Nautical tell us as we cruise out of Waianae Harbor on West Oahu.

We sail for a bit and then come upon a pod of spinner dolphins resting off our port side. Everybody bunches to the front of the boat to get as close as they can to the animals. Our guides remind us of the dolphins’ sleep cycle and explain that the tour company follows the NOAA-sponsored Dolphin SMART program.

SMART stands for: Staying back from the dolphins; Moving away if they seem disturbed; Always keep a boat engine in neutral if you are near a pod; Refraining from feeding or touching them; and Teaching others to be dolphin SMART. Needless to say, we didn’t swim with or touch the dolphins. Sorry sis. Instead, we sailed a bit more, snorkeled with some sea turtles, not touching them of course, and then sailed back toward the harbor.

On the way back, we spotted another pod of spinners, and even more inspiring, we simply watched the animals. They were enjoying their rest, undisturbed in their home — something we all crave and appreciate when we can get it.