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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 18, 2003

Dolphin swim 'may not be good idea'

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Swimmers follow a small group of dolphins off the Kahe Point power plant during an outing with Dolphin Excursions. The state is considering ways to warn swimmers of potential shark encounters.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Members of the state Shark Task Force are grappling with how best to warn the public about the dangers of swimming with dolphins, a popular activity along the Leeward Coast linked to a shark attack this summer.

O'ahu ocean safety experts want the public to understand the hazards but stopped short this week of a formal warning.

"We are looking at different ways to get the word out that swimming with dolphins, especially out there, may not be a good idea," said task force member Randy Honebrink. "But this is going to affect businesses in the area, so we need to think this through pretty carefully."

Honebrink said the Department of Land and Natural Resources will probably add a cautionary statement about swimming with dolphins in its 10-point shark safety brochure. He also would like to see DLNR enforcement officers who patrol the area distribute the brochure and warn people of the risks before they go into the water.

Shark attacks on spinner dolphins have drawn increasing public attention during the past two summers, primarily because of fears that one or more great white sharks, which are rare in Hawai'i waters, were to blame.

The attacks were along the Leeward Coast, and some of them were seen by boat captains who specialize in tours that take swimmers closer to dolphins.

In August 2001, two observed shark attacks on dolphins prompted the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to urge caution in waters off the Wai'anae coast. Authorities could not say with certainty what kind of shark was responsible, noting that tiger sharks also frequent the area.

Last month, a Manoa man was bitten on his foot while swimming with a pod of dolphins 50 yards off Makua Beach. The victim, who had gone into the water on his own, survived.

Cal Marshall, 4, left, and brother Matthew Marshall, 8, watch snorkelers, including their brother, Victor, 15, and parents, Roger and Laina, swim to a group of dolphins.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Initially, authorities thought the shark was a great white, but Honebrink said that recently was ruled out.

"It really doesn't make any difference," he said. "It was a big shark. The guy was lucky to get away with the injuries he did."

Honebrink spoke Tuesday with shark attack expert George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, the long-standing comprehensive scientific database recognized as the definitive source of information on shark attacks.

Burgess knew of only one other shark attack on someone swimming with dolphins, but he also stressed that the activity definitely increases a person's risk of being bitten, Honebrink said.

"He has no doubt at all that swimming with dolphins may increase your risk of a shark encounter for these two reasons," Honebrink said. "Some large sharks may pursue dolphins in order to feed on them. And some sharks and dolphins may be feeding on the same food source and therefore be in the same area at the same time."

Jim Howe, a task force member and the operations chief for the city's lifeguards, said officials are more worried about unsupervised swimmers than those who seek out dolphins as part of a tour group.

The tour operators are rescuing unsupervised swimmers on a regular basis, "way, way offshore," Howe said.

Howe said swimming with dolphins creates three potentially dangerous situations.

Besides the danger of sharks, the swimmers run the risk of being swept away by strong currents and of being run over by fishing boats that cannot see their low profile, Howe said.

"From my point of view I want people to know it is not just a benign activity, and when you do this you have to be mentally and physically prepared for these three things," Howe said. "Then what people do is up to them."

Victor Lozano, owner of Dolphin Excursions Hawai'i, said he pulls dolphin-seeking swimmers not part of any tour group from the water every week. They are asking for trouble, he said.

"We will be half a mile or more offshore in 100 feet of water and you see two people swimming with no floats, no warning flags to mark them, nothing," he said.

It was Lozano who rescued John Marrack, the Manoa man bitten June 24 off Makua. Two days later, Lozano pulled six swimmers who became separated from their dolphin tour during an emergency.

He said the proposed warning is a smart idea and doesn't think it will hurt business.

Lozano tells his clients that sharks are a part of the ocean and many of them wind up seeing sharks while swimming with dolphins.

"We don't sugarcoat anything," Lozano said. "I tell them dolphins are prey, and it is not uncommon to have sharks stalking these animals."

William Aila Jr., a fishing authority along the Leeward Coast, said a warning of some kind is "absolutely a good idea."

"You are swimming with a pod of dolphins that are a natural prey of these sharks," he said. "It's like, duh."

Aila reminds people that when they enter the water, they become part of the food chain. He also warns swimmers that dolphins are not necessarily their friends.

"It's the Flipper syndrome," he said. "They think these dolphins are going to surround them and protect them from a shark. These dolphins are going to run away as quick as they can."

Fleeing dolphins is one sign of potential trouble, shark experts have said.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.