Boaters at Honokohau Harbor say swimmers chasing dolphins creating recipe for disaster

  • A sailboat and small fishing boat are joined by dolphins as they head out of Honokohau Harbor. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • While state administrative rules prohibit swimming in harbor channels, there is “some uncertainty whether a channel exists, and if so, where the boundaries are” at Honokohau because there is only one green navigation buoy, which is pictured here. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
  • A boat enters Honokohau Harbor as a pair of divers prepare to head out with dive flag in tow. Some boaters are concerned about swimming and diving near the harbor entrance, which they say is creating a potentially unsafe situation. While state administrative rules prohibit swimming in harbor channels, there is “some uncertainty whether a channel exists, and if so, where the boundaries are” at Honokohau because there is only one green navigation buoy, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. (Photos by Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • A boat heads out of Honokohau Harbor as divers prepare to head underwater to experience the Kona Coast. Some boaters are concerned about swimming and diving near the harbor entrance. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Steve Marks was leaving Honokohau Harbor earlier this month for a day of fishing when he abruptly had to bring his boat to a halt.

“As we’re coming out, there’s a whole bunch of dolphins, and then all of the sudden, I looked and there was a whole bunch of people in the water,” said Marks.

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“I just threw my boat in neutral and I looked to the side of my boat and there was lady staring at me that was in the water. And I said, ‘holy crap,’ and then my other friend told me, ‘ho brah, I almost bang one, too.’”

Swimming with wild dolphins is an experience of a lifetime and a popular West Hawaii attraction, however, boaters say doing it near the harbor entrance is creating an unsafe situation that needs to be addressed before something tragic happens.

According to boaters, some tour companies are stopping in waters just outside the entrance to allow people a chance to swim with the pod that is known to frequent the harbor area. At times, there have been four boats dropping people in the water. There’s also some people swimming from shore to interact with the mammals. Dive flags may or may not be used.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said it was still reviewing proposed rules under the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibiting swimming with and approaching Hawaiian spinner dolphins.

While they may start in waters adjacent to where boats traverse, the swimmers often unknowingly follow the dolphins into the area where boats are going in and out of the harbor.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ there will be an accident in the Honokohau Harbor entrance — it’s going to be ‘when’ there’s an accident, because it’s bound to happen, and somebody is going to get killed,” said Rob Englehard, a fisherman who also directs fishing tournaments in West Hawaii.

Marks, Englehard and other boaters contacted West Hawaii Today with their concerns about the situation and what they said was a slow response from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, which oversees the small boat harbor located in North Kona. The boaters say it’s been going on for at least a couple of years and want to see something done before something disastrous happens.

“There’s a bunch of us that have called DLNR and voiced our opinion about it and we’re basically not getting nowhere,” said Marks.

The department, in an emailed response to questions posed by the newspaper, said it was aware of the issue and is working with the U.S. Coast Guard to find a remedy.

While state administrative rules prohibit swimming in harbor channels, there is “some uncertainty whether a channel exists, and if so, where the boundaries are” at Honokohau because there is only one green navigation buoy, the department said.

“Having a second or red buoy coupled with the existing green buoy would help define a channel and make adherence/enforcement easier,” the department said.

A waterway assessment survey is underway and was sent March 23 to all Honokohau Harbor permit holders and other interested parties. It is being conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Waterways Management Branch and the data collected will help determine the effectiveness of the current system of aids to navigation, as well as other waterway safety concerns.

Lt. Cmdr. John Bannon, Coast Guard Sector Honolulu waterways management lead, said he’s received 80 surveys regarding the harbor, and plans to visit Honokohau later this month or in July to meet with boaters and stakeholders to discuss findings from the survey. Thereafter, he said, a recommendation will be made, whether it be addressing issues with users or making changes to navigation aids, such as buoys. The latter of which can be a lengthy process requiring permits.

The DLNR also said a Coast Guard notice to mariners about safety concerns just outside of the harbor relating to mixed use of the waterway has been in effect since May 2.

“Safety hazards include non-motorized watercraft and swimmer use around the channel and crossing the channel. All mariners are reminded to maintain safe navigation speeds, lookouts, and safety vigilance of their surroundings when transiting in and outbound of Honokohau Harbor,” the notice reads. “All recreational waterway users are reminded to maintain safe practices when using the waterway around a navigable channel, and to maintain awareness of their surroundings as well as employ personal safety devices such as flotation devices, markers, or floats to promote visibility.”

While the DLNR may be working on it, the boaters say more needs to be done now before someone gets hurt and liability becomes an issue.

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“It’s a major attraction, but they can do it elsewhere. If they want to go through and stop and look at the things while on the boat, that’s all cool, but putting people in the water in the entrance has just got to stop,” Englehard said.

Added commercial fisherman David Magallanes: “If I run somebody over, that could be haunting me for the rest of my life.”