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Essential Guide to Ethical Wildlife Experiences in Hawaii

While there’s a plethora of unique wildlife inhabiting the land and waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands, these animals have become subject to the negative effects of growing tourism. 

Ethical wildlife tourism is an essential part of keeping the island and marine ecosystems alive and thriving for years to come. Unfortunately, it has become more difficult to discern whether an experience is ethical or not due to poor leadership from tour operators. 

This all-encompassing guide will teach you how to travel to Hawaii ethically and support the local wildlife of each of the islands. With everything you need to know to see the beautiful creatures of Hawaii, you’ll soon be able to start exploring the natural wonders of this destination.

A sea turtle seen roaming the Hawaiian waters

All About the Wildlife of Hawaii

The tropical climate of Hawaii is home to a range of remarkable wildlife, making it a prime destination for seeing marine life. Due to tourist’s interest in them, these are the five animals that are most susceptible to harm from human contact.

Dolphins

Dolphins are commonly seen in the waters surrounding Hawaii, and many tour operators offer dolphin-watching excursions where visitors can observe these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Knowing the science behind dolphin behavior is essential to ethical marine tourism in Hawaii.

Spinner dolphins in particular rest in the morning using the unihemispheric sleep technique where one side of the brain rests while the other stays alert. During this resting time, they will swim slowly, surfacing occasionally for air. After this information was uncovered, it became illegal to swim with the spinners in Hawaii.

Despite this, some tours will still search for them and allow tourists to swim with them. This is harmful because it can disturb their natural behaviors and potentially impact their health and well-being. 

Other types of dolphins that inhabit Hawaiian waters such as bottlenose or rough-toothed dolphins are safe to swim with using respectful snorkeling techniques like avoiding chasing or harassing them and always maintaining a respectful distance.

Dolphins swimming at the surface along the coast of Hawaii
Dolphins can be seen year-round in Hawaii!

Turtles

There are five species of turtles that make up the Hawaiian waters, including:

  • Green Sea Turtle (most commonly seen)
  • Hawksbill Turtle
  • Leatherback Turtle
  • Loggerhead Turtle
  • Olive Ridley Turtle
A sea turtle seen while snorkeling in Hawaii
Honu can be found everywhere around the Hawaiian islands

Turtles are protected under Hawaii state laws which advise tourists to enjoy their presence from a distance, act responsibly, and never touch or feed turtles. Touching turtles causes stress, and bacteria from your hands can infect the turtle and even lead to cancerous tumors. 

While knowing this is important, many turtles are actually unbothered by human presence in the water, and I’ve been approached by them many times whether I’m scuba diving or snorkeling. Sea turtles can also be spotted basking on the beaches on the coast of the Hawaiian islands. For the best places to see sea turtles in Hawaii, you can find these in the FAQ section.

Whales

Whale season in Hawaii runs from November to April, and visitors come from all over the world to experience the sight of this beautiful marine creature. 

A few of the biggest threats to whales are entanglement, boat strikes, and environmental changes like water temperature rises and current changes. Whales are protected by federal and state law in that it is illegal to swim or snorkel with Humpback Whales in Hawaii. 

Most whale-watching tours comply with regulations to not disturb the whales, like turning off engines as whales are spotted and allowing them to roam as they wish, but reading the reviews on a tour is never a bad idea to ensure that your tour is ethical.

A humpback whale seen breaching off the coast of Hawaii
Humpback whales come to Hawaiian waters every winter

Hawaiian Monk Seals

Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world and are native to the Hawaiian islands. Monk seals are frequently noticed coming up onto the beach or rocks to bask in the tropical sun.

While interacting with these adorable seals can be tempting, touching or feeding these seals can lead to stress and disruption to wild behaviors. Luckily, many areas of Hawaii where monk seals are common will put out signs or cones reminding tourists to keep a safe distance from the wild seals. Still, it’s important to not only practice safe wildlife observance but to remind others to do so as well.

Hawaiian monk seal seen chilling on the rocks at Ka Ena Point in Oahu
These adorable seals come up to sleep on land

Manta Rays

It’s safe to say that if you’ve traveled to the Big Island, you’ve likely either experienced or considered doing a manta ray night dive. In theory, these evening snorkeling expeditions are meant to attract the rays naturally and be a win-win for both humans and manta rays, but poor management can quickly make this threatening.

This excursion was first discovered after hotels were built along the coast of the Big Island. Divers of the area discovered that the lights from the hotels attract plankton, which the manta rays feed on. Nowadays, surfboards with lights attached to the bottom are used to attract the rays to feed on the plankton, and snorkelers can hold onto the board while witnessing the marvel of these massive rays.

In some cases, tour operators will harass the manta rays in hopes of creating a better experience for their guests, but this can be psychologically damaging and impact their natural behavior. Additionally, negligent tourists touching or kicking the rays can also be harmful, and if proper consequences or regulations are not enforced, the situation quickly becomes unethical.

A baby and mother manta ray feeding on the Big Island night dive
Get up close to these gentle giants in an ethical way!

How Do I Know It’s Ethical?

There are a certain set of factors that go into determining whether an experience is ethical or not. These include considering an animal’s:

  • Nutrition
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Behavior
  • Mental state (which is directly related to the upkeep of the initial four)

Always keep the five freedoms in mind when booking an excursion that involves wildlife interaction.

Anything that advertises being able to touch, pose with, or take pictures with animals will be unethical. This is not how wild animals behave in their natural environment, making it a threat to their behavior and ultimately their health and mental state. In these types of environments, food is used as a reward for compliance, meaning the animals are starved unless they do exactly what their handler says.

This is also the case when animals are used for entertainment, because the actions that are trying to be enforced on these animals are rarely natural, and they are forced to learn a routine in a torturous way.

A monk seal basking in the Hawaiian sun
Monk seals can often be found basking on the sand of Hawaii’s beaches

Observing animals in the wild is another common factor to consider, as animals being held in captivity are not living the best life possible unless being held by necessity in a sanctuary. 

Despite being an advocate for sustainable accommodation, Hilton hosts a Dolphin Quest excursion in their Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island. This is a prime example of marine mammals being held in captivity, and the effects of this have been proven to be psychologically torturous to the dolphins due to the lack of free roam and conditions that encroach on their physical and mental health. 

Since others may likely have picked up on unethical practices, reading reviews and talking to others who have done the experience can help you decide whether this is an ethical experience. Make sure to scroll down to the negative reviews of an animal experience to see if there are harmful practices documented.

The Best Ethical Animal Experiences in Hawaii

Thankfully, there are many ways to ethically experience the wildlife of Hawaii. These are the best sustainable experiences in Hawaii that I’ve found to add to your itinerary!

Whale-watching excursions offer the opportunity to encounter these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. The waters surrounding Maui are renowned for their high concentration of humpback whales during the winter months, making it a prime spot for it.

PacWhale Eco Adventures of Maui is my choice as it’s run by the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation and the tours directly fund their research, education, and conservation programs. Each of their trips is led by a Certified Marine Naturalist and can provide insight into the behaviors and biology.

A whale breaching at sunset in Maui
Whale watching in Maui in unrivaled

Swimming with dolphins is awe-inspiring, but choosing the right company to go with should always be part of your search for a tour. These excursions are run by the best companies for sustainable dolphin encounters:

  • Dolphin Excursions Hawaii: Offering tours right out of West Oahu, this company admires whales and spinner dolphins from a respectful distance and promotes not chasing or harassing any animals seen in the snorkeling portion of the tour
  • Kamaina Ocean Safari: Kamaina runs tours out of Kailua-Kona and takes out small groups to see and experience all of the marine life of the Kona Coast in an ethical way
  • Pac Whale Eco Adventures: This eco-friendly tour operator in Maui runs snorkeling and dolphin tours with breakfast, lunch, and refreshments included, all profits go to the Pacific Whale Foundation

Each of these tour providers are experts at finding marine animals and making your trip unforgettable while keeping the animals safe.

Dolphins seen swimming below in Hawaiian waters
Seeing Hawaii’s marine life is something you should not miss in Oahu

The beloved Manta Ray night dive is a necessary addition to your Big Island itinerary, and choosing a responsible tour operator is key. Sea Paradise brings eco-friendly tourism values to the tour by offering reef-safe sunscreen on board, following all necessary guidelines, and using compostable or recyclable materials throughout their tours. You can read more about their sustainability practice here.

Hawaii Adventure Diving offers a thrilling expedition where you can swim and dive with tiger sharks in North Oahu! Their shark handlers are some of the best in Hawaii and even the world, and they lead ethical no-cage experiences that respect marine life. 

A close up shot of a Tiger Shark in the Maldives
Experience these beautiful sharks up close and personal!

Turtles are known to the Hawaiians as “Honu”, and these marine animals are seen all over the place in and out of the water. Admiring sea turtles at a safe and respectful distance allows you to experience their wonderful nature without harming them.

Besides seeing sea turtles on the beaches of Hawaii, you will also likely encounter them in the water if you take a snorkeling tour

Sea turtles seen basking on the sand at Poipu Beach in Kauai
Looking for the best place to see turtles in Kauai? Poipu is the place to go!

The Krishna Sanctuary of the Big Island offers a unique and adorable cow cuddling experience, where you can cuddle with their cows (with no time limit) for just $20. Krishna’s is built on the values of rescuing cows and giving them a fulfilling life by treating them with love.

Oahu’s first nonprofit animal sanctuary, the Aloha Animal Sanctuary is a safe haven for farm animals to live their life in peace. They take in animals who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and focus on promoting a philosophy of a love-based approach to caring for animals. The sanctuary runs completely off volunteers and donations to create a welcoming environment for their animals.

Other Ways to Support Wildlife in Hawaii

Supporting Hawaii’s wildlife doesn’t end at just choosing the right tours, there are many things you can do to keep the island and marine ecosystem flourishing:

  • Avoid waste and single-use plastics: Discarded waste from tourists ends up polluting the island and ocean all of the time and these products pose a threat to animals who can get entangled or harmed by the trash; Choose reusable and sustainable travel products for your Hawaii trip
  • Always choose reef-safe sunscreen: The chemicals used in commercial sunscreens have been found to contribute to coral bleaching and damage marine ecosystems
  • Minimize your carbon footprint: Water temperatures are rising, and many marine species are not prepared for the rapid change of conditions; Using public transportation, walking, or biking, conserving water, and choosing plant-based meals are a few ways to reduce your carbon footprint
  • Donate to sanctuaries and foundations for Hawaii’s animals: Making a donation can help fund research and conservation efforts for organizations that are focused on saving the animals of Hawaii, especially for nonprofits that rely on it
A manta ray coming up to feed on the plankton
Manta Ray night dives are unforgettable

Frequently Asked Questions About Animal Encounters in Hawaii

Swimming with dolphins can be ethical if you see them naturally while snorkeling and by not chasing or harassing them. This does not apply to spinner dolphins, as it is illegal to swim with them in Hawaii because it disrupts their resting period. Since Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to snorkel with wild dolphins, taking a tour gives you a good chance of seeing dolphins in the wild.

The Big Island manta ray night dive is built based on naturally attracting manta rays, but some unethical tour providers disregard the safety of this tour. Choosing an experience with explicit sustainable practices like this tour with Sea Paradise is the best way to have an ethical animal encounter in Hawaii.

Humpback whales come to Hawaiian waters during the months of December to April. The best place to go whale-watching in Hawaii is Maui because the whales are drawn to the shallow Au’au channel between Maui, Moloka’i, and Lana’i.

Electric Beach is one of the best beaches in Oahu to see marine life, and turtles frequent this popular dive spot. Laniakea Beach and Hanuama Bay are also well-known for turtle sightings.

Ho’okipa Beach and Makena Landing are two great places to see sea turtles in Maui basking on the sand and in the water. Many tourists also choose to take a snorkeling tour to Molokini Crater, which often stops at Turtle Town- one of the best snorkeling spots in Maui to see turtles.

The best places to see sea turtles in Kauai are undoubtedly Poipu Beach and Anini Beach where turtles frequently come to bask upon the sand. Sheraton Caverns is another popular destination for scuba divers and is known to be a turtle sanctuary.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and Kahalu’u Beach Park are two prime spots for spotting turtles on the Big Island. I also noticed tons of turtles when stand-up paddleboarding through the saltwater lagoons at the Hilton Waikoloa Village.

Taking responsible action when interacting with wildlife is the first step in planning a sustainable trip to Hawaii. There are many tours that will take you out on ethical wildlife safaris, and ways to respect these animals without harming them.

Choosing these ethical wildlife excursions will allow Hawaii’s ecosystems to continue flourishing for more visitors to enjoy for years to come!

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