Ask a Scientist: What you need to know about the NZ dolphin swim ban


The New Zealand government was making some waves this week by announcing that operations offering swimming with bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands, a popular holiday region at the northern tip of NZ, will no longer be available. The decision of the Department of Conservation that already came into effect on the 1st of July 2019, also limiting viewing times on dolphin watching vessels, was made to facilitate the protection of NZ bottlenose dolphins. Previous limitations on interaction times were already executed but were found to be ineffective to ensure the survival of the population which has experienced a decrease of 66% since the early 1990s, with now only 19 individuals remaining.

At this time, five commercial operators hold a permit that is issued for three years and now comes with further restrictions:

1. All swimming with bottlenose dolphins is prohibited.

2. Areas at Tapeka Point and Roberton Island will be closed to commercial permit holders.

3. All Operators will be restricted to viewing the bottlenose dolphin population either morning or afternoon to provide a block of time where no interactions are undertaken.

4. The interaction time with bottlenose dolphins is reduced to a total of 20 minutes per trip (this total includes cumulative interactions).

While marine tourism constitutes an essential and most popular component of the tourism sector in New Zealand, Kiwis are serious about protecting their natural resources. Decisions like this one are sometimes necessary to enforce protection so that wildlife can be experienced for years to come.

In-water interactions with marine life may have detrimental impacts on fauna and in the case of the bottlenoses of the Bay of Islands, it became evident that swimming with them lead to decreased resting and foraging times. So in other words, with our intrusion, we’re disturbing them and actually it’s a common issue with this type of animal encounters that can be found all around the world with different kinds of species: Sperm whales in Dominica cannot sleep or hunt properly when frequented by swimmers, nursing humpback whales in Tonga show signs of disturbance when approached by whale enthusiasts, and orcas in Norway are now chased by dozens of boats to get swimmers into the water, with many foreign operators involved who lack experience and who disregard guidelines due to popular demand.

Therefore, lots of people voice that a holistic prohibition of swim-with programmes is the ultimate result. However, this is not feasible and, in my opinion, is not the answer because there are many good examples out there that need to be acknowledged. By having said that, whether swim operations should be conducted or not, generally, is a multi-level decision. Management needs to be species-specific and location-specific, focus on the local and regional scale, and the population targeted for this tourism activity. In the end, it’s also your call to choose operators who respect the animals, where it’s about animal welfare and not so much about meeting tourist satisfaction.

New Zealand still offers various opportunities to engage with wildlife. You may want to consider visiting a seal colony, going whale watching to see sperm or Bryde’s whales, or if you really want to swim with dolphins, switch to more suitable species, such as dusky dolphins when you’re visiting Kaikoura.

The decision to end swimming with bottlenose dolphins is sending the right signal: That we’re providing opportunities for people to reconnect with nature but not at all costs.