Dolphin SMART

The Dolphin SMART programme aims to promote responsible viewing and stewardship of wild dolphins. The programme currently has participating operators in Florida, Alabama, and Hawaii. Launched in the Florida Keys in 2007, Dolphin SMART is the result of a collaborative effort between WDC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Dolphin Ecology Project, and local dolphin-watch tour operators.

The programme aims to enhance marine stewardship through the voluntary participation of commercial tour operators, and engagement with local businesses and the general public. Dolphin SMART recognizes dolphin-watch tour operations that meet standards to promote responsible viewing and prevent disturbance and harassment of wild dolphins. The acronym SMART signifies the basic principles of viewing etiquette:

  • Stay at least 50 yards away;
  • Move away slowly if the dolphins shows signs of disturbance;
  • Always put the vessel engine in neutral;
  • Refrain from swimming with, touching or feeding wild dolphins; and
  • Teach others to follow these practices. 

Commercial operators that offer trips to view wild dolphins are eligible to participate in the Dolphin SMART program.  In addition, other businesses that wish to support the mission of Dolphin SMART can become eligible to promote the program as a Dolphin SMART Proud Supporter.  All Dolphin SMART participants must agree to program criteria, training and education, and evaluation requirements.

The Dolphin SMART program offers participation incentives for operators who voluntarily follow codes of conduct and other ‘best practice’ program criteria, while educating their customers about the importance of minimizing wild dolphin disturbance and harassment. The program also includes an important research component to help provide insight about the health and welfare of local wild dolphin populations.

“We have developed this innovative and multifaceted program over the course of several years, and with the interest and commitment of local dolphin tour operators,” says Courtney S. Vail, Programs and Campaigns Manager and founding partner of Dolphin SMART. “Wild dolphin harassment and disturbance is a real conservation issue in many parts of the United States, and we are excited about assisting with the development and implementation of this program that will make a genuine contribution towards the protection of wild dolphins here.”

The program was launched in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary primarily  because a resident group of bottlenose dolphins was, and continues to be, targeted by a growing number of commercial operators for their dolphin-watch excursion activities. The heightening amount of human activity dramatically increases the risk to wild dolphins, disrupting their natural behaviours such as migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding and sheltering. Dolphins can also be injured by boat and propeller strikes if they become habituated to feeding and other illegal activities by commercial and recreational boaters.

Wild bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) disturbance and harassment is a growing problem in some parts of the United States, especially in certain areas of Florida and Hawaii. The National Marine Fisheries Service recognized the magnitude of this issue in 1997 when it developed a targeted campaign to educate the public about issues associated with feeding and harassing wild dolphins and promote techniques for responsibly viewing wild dolphins.

This ‘Protect Dolphins Campaign’ focuses on viewing dolphins responsibly from a distance, and avoiding illegal and other activities that bear the potential to harass wild dolphins. A growing body of scientific literature has continued to reveal the biological significance of human-induced activity on wild dolphin populations, specifically vessel-based tourism associated with whale and dolphin watching operations.

Marine mammal experts in Florida have also recognized the serious threats to local, resident dolphin populations resulting from inappropriate human interactions and activities associated with recreational and commercial boaters and vessels.

“Because of the increasing popularity of marine-based tourism, especially wild dolphin viewing in Florida, interactions with wild dolphins are increasing despite existing regulations, viewing guidelines, and outreach efforts over the past decade,” continues Courtney. “We are hopeful that this positive, voluntary program will provide the encouragement necessary to reduce and eventually eliminate detrimental human-dolphin interactions in the Keys and elsewhere.”