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.


“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.


“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.”

  1. Michael M June 23, 2018 3:27 am

    Way past time for some regulations on these dolphin tours. Harassing the animals and creating navigational issues should be something the DLNR could have addressed a long time ago.

  2. fishman2 June 23, 2018 6:23 am

    Hello, wake up. Harassing dolphins is illegal already and has been forever. Everyone knows it. Those boat operators should be fined and their operating permit taken away. The Feds have been “working” on a change of rules for longer than I can remember. Your tax dollars not at work.

    1. angkoldoy June 24, 2018 6:48 am

      Cite one incident in which the Federal Prosecutor in Honolulu has brought charges against a suspect to be heard by the Federal Magistrate.

      1. fishman2 June 24, 2018 8:23 am

        There is no federal enforcement. Only example was the one tour operator who got fined by the State I think for harassing the dolphins. So they have shown they can do it but choose not to.

        1. angkoldoy June 24, 2018 10:33 pm

          The state judiciary can not hear violations of the MMPA, Federal regulation. Never happened. A state officer deputized by the Feds is able to issue a Federal citation which would be heard by the Federal Magistrate in Honolulu. Whether there would be federal LE here if they ever do get around to amending the MMPA , just wait.

  3. Paul Montague June 23, 2018 6:59 am

    I agree that this is a problem, but am I correct that there is only one buoy marking the channel?

    1. Du Mhan Yhu June 23, 2018 8:04 am

      Yes. a single buoy. Not so much a channel as a marker to head toward and avoid rocks to the north and dive bouys to the south.

      Have seen a tourist boat dump snorkelers fight in the main channel before. Boats had to stop and detour far around them. Could see a couple captains having words with the tourist boats about the idiot practice of putting swimmers in a boat traffic lane.

      1. Paul Montague June 24, 2018 5:56 am

        I thought so, thanks, Perhaps a better marked channel could help. I also agree that the dolphin tour boats chasing down dolphin are not good.

  4. Kawaii June 23, 2018 8:03 am

    Be careful what you wish for. DLNR could use this as a reason to raise harbor and ramp fees for boaters. They also have the option of creating a countless number of new regulations for boaters to follow.

    The burden should fall on the tour operators and snorkelers who have no regard for safety.

  5. Tim June 23, 2018 8:45 am

    A 5 mph zone from the harbor entrance to the green buoy would help, and be easy to start. Although most boaters I see fishermen/dive boats don’t follow the no wake zone rule in the harbor so I doubt they would follow the rules outside the harbor. Most guys I see come in full tilt until they reach the entrance. Very unsafe boating practice.

    1. angkoldoy June 24, 2018 6:56 am

      Review “slow no wake” regulations.

    2. Tim June 24, 2018 10:03 am

      Please explain to me why it is so hard to slow your boats when you know swimmers are in the area. Even if they are out of the “boating channel ” it’s not safe travel through the area at high speed. I’m a boater not a snorkler, but we need to share this area with aloha for all. We can’t be worried about the lack of help dlnr. Safety first

      1. Tim June 24, 2018 10:18 am

        For you boat captains that refuse to slow down, please review the “Pudentual rule” you learned to get your captains license .

  6. Suzan Leter June 23, 2018 10:26 am

    Yes, this is a meaningful discusssion as I am one of the swimmers at this public snorkling spot that was almost run over by a boat coming into that harbour way too fast. I wasn’t in deep water, I was close to the reef just changing over to the left side of the reef where I know the underwater landscape quite well andin about 10 feet of water during by breef time crrossing the near land boat channel. We all share this spot, local people, local swimmers, boaters, and tourists. Please boat at very slow speeds within a mile of this harbor, because we all swim easily out a mile in protected areas of the ocean. As a old lady, I cannot tow a big rubber diving ball when just snorkling within feet of dry land on a public beach.

    1. Du Mhan Yhu June 23, 2018 10:53 am

      Please boat at very slow speeds within a mile of this harbor,

      How about you go snarfel away from boat traffic? Why not advocate for 15mph limits within a mile of every intersection?

      1. Suzan Leter June 23, 2018 10:24 pm

        That is disrespectful, just slow down! You know it is a park with ocean recreation. Boaters come into that area at full speed, and you know there are swimmers from shore one mile out, never mind what the tour boats bring to that spot.

  7. Kaipo Wall June 23, 2018 10:51 am

    the fleet of fat tiger sharks that inhabit Honokohau reef are clearly not doing their job

  8. Du Mhan Yhu June 23, 2018 8:15 pm

    Well , heck, let’s just drop tourists off in the middle of Queen K highway and tell them to start running in circles…………………….

    Put up speed limit signs at 5 mph since there are tourists in the road, left there by some greedy operator…………..Look! Lava tube!

  9. NoLogic June 23, 2018 8:36 pm

    From Green Buoy to Green Light on North side of harbor mouth is the “line” separating channel from fair swimming/paddling/surfing areas. I see most tour boats herding their people north of the line with a few exceptions. There is no line marking the south edge of the channel. In my experience, the DLNR in Kona is not too savvy on the actual rules, let alone the Coast Guard Regulations. They have a beautiful big zodiac style boat that sits broken and rotting by their office. Tax dollars wasted. No matter the circumstance, a boater who hits a swimmer will probably be in big trouble. If you think humans are capable of swimming with dolphins you are overestimating human abilities. Many of you will never be satisfied until EVERYBODY is on some form of government assistance.

  10. angkoldoy June 23, 2018 10:06 pm

    The dolphins are protected by the Federal regulation, Marine Mammal Protection Act. An indication of the Feds priority: They have none of their Federal Law Enforcement Officers assigned to the Big Island. DLNR/DOCARE are deputized by the Feds to enforce these regs. As if they don’t have enough to do. Including their attempts to figure out Boating Divisions regs regarding swimming in or in the vicinity of the harbor entrance. Good luck with that one.

  11. TN August 23, 2018 9:09 am

    This is a problem with multiple sides.

    First off you have a channel only defined by 1 buoy, nobody really has a good idea of the exact boundaries of the channel.

    Second you have the tour operators, which indeed do drop people in or right next to the channel to view dolphin and all the other stuff that frequent the area.

    Third, which I think is not mentioned well here, is some of the fishing boats who travel at 30-40 knots all the way into the harbor before slowing down… If you know swimmers frequent that area, you shouldn’t be travelling at 30-40 knots through the channel and you can bet your pants you would be held responsible if you hit a swimmer in that channel. As you should be. Until the problems solved, don’t make it worse by breaking laws to save yourself a few minutes of travel time through the channel.

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