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10 Things You Can Do to Share the Shore and Sea With Pacific Islands Wildlife

May 28, 2021

Make a difference for Hawai‘i wildlife with these 10 tips for sharing the sea and shore.

Hawaiian monk seal signage with two resting monk seals behind it on the beach.

Between fishing, paddleboarding, snorkeling, or even sunbathing, there are myriad ways Hawaiʻi residents and visitors enjoy the beach. But marine animals abound in Hawai‘i nei (beloved Hawai‘i), and these animals use the same spaces we do. Here are some things we can all do to share the sea and shore so these animals can live their most wild lives.

1. Use the “rule of thumb” when observing endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

Hawaiian monk seals may look cute, but as with many wild animals, getting close to them can be dangerous. An easy way to share the shore with them is to give them a thumbs up!

  • Stay behind any designated signs or barriers
  • Make a "thumbs up" gesture and extend your arm straight in front of you
  • Turn your thumb parallel to the ground in your line of sight of the seal
  • You are far enough away if your thumb covers the entire seal (this distance is about 50 feet)
  • If you encounter a seal in the water, do not attempt to touch or chase it—give it plenty of space by immediately backing away

The exception to this rule is if you come across a mom and pup. Mother seals can be very protective of their pups, so give them at least 150 feet of space for your own safety.

2. Give sea turtles 10 feet of space.

Sea turtle with white etched number on its shell on the beach.
Green sea turtle with etched number on its shell in non-toxic paint on the shores of French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

It may be tempting to get up close and personal with sea turtles sleeping (basking) on the sand or swimming in the ocean. The truth about these ancient reptiles is that they need at least 10 feet of space on land and in the water. If you want to take a selfie with a sea turtle, just make sure to do it from at least 10 feet away or use your zoom feature. 

Sea turtles (along with monk seals and other marine mammals) are protected by law. To report a suspected marine animal violation or animal emergency, please call the NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840 (Enforcement is option 6 on the main menu). You can email photos and videos of suspected violations to RespectWildlife@noaa.gov. You can also report sightings and photos of a sea turtle with a number on its shell to this email address.

3. Let naiʻa (dolphins) have 50 yards to survive.

Three spinner dolphins swimming in the clear blue water.
Like other dolphin species, Hawaiian spinners are highly social creatures. Aside from resting and nurturing young, they use their time in bays to socialize with each other.

Sleeping, socializing, and taking care of children are vital activities for many mammals, including humans and dolphins. So when we see nai‘a swimming in shallow bays and coastal areas, they’re likely engaging in these important survival activities. (Yes, they can sleep and nurture their young while swimming!) Whatever ocean activities you enjoy, be sure to give nai‘a 50 yards of space. Do not attempt to swim with them so they can keep up with these important survival behaviors.

4. Keep your dogs on a leash.

Hawaiian monk seal resting on the beach on his belly.
RK58 resting on a Kauaʻi beach before transport for medical treatment for dog bites at Ke Kai Ola.

Your pup may enjoy sandy shorelines and swimming in the waves as much as ‘īlioholoikauaua (Hawaiian monk seals). After all, ‘īlioholoikauaua literally translates to “dog that runs in the rough seas.” But dogs and monk seals can injure each other and transmit diseases, putting our pets and this critically endangered species at risk.

Hawaiʻi law requires all dogs to be leashed in public spaces, except in designated public dog parks. Be mindful of beach parks where dogs are not allowed (such as Ka‘ena Point State Park or Kaimana Beach, Waikīkī). Seek out another locale for you and your canine companion to enjoy the outdoors together.

5. Never feed marine mammals or sea turtles—it’s harmful and can be illegal.

Hawaiian monk seal swimming forward underwater.
Hawaiian monk seals may look like they want to play and may even approach you in the water, but keeping your distance will help these endangered animals stay wild.

Marine wildlife, like all wild animals, may bite and inflict injuries to people who try to feed them. When humans feed wild animals, it can alter the animals’ natural behavior, negatively impact their health, and make them dependent on handouts. It is against federal law to feed or attempt to feed marine mammals.

6. Follow FAST (Fishing Around Seals and Turtles) guidelines.

Fishermen and monk seal with fish bait in the species mouth.
Notify the Marine Animal Response Hotline (1-888-256-9840) if a seal is seen taking your bait or fish.

In Hawaiʻi, we love fishing and our local marine wildlife. But sharing the beach with honu (Hawaiian sea turtles) and ‘īlioholoikauaua (Hawaiian monk seals) means that they can accidentally get hooked or entangled in fishing gear, causing death or serious injury. Follow FAST guidelines to keep on casting and prevent accidental interactions:

  • Never leave gear unattended, and check your bait often
  • Use live fish bait (turtles are attracted to eel, octopus, squid, or dead fish)
  • Fish sunset to sunrise (turtles primarily feed during the day and sleep at night)
  • Never feed a turtle or monk seal—clean your catch away from turtles and seals, and never discard fish scraps in the water or harbors
  • Pull in your line if you see a monk seal or know that one is in the area
  • Fish with barbless circle hooks, which are less damaging and easier to remove from seals and turtles than barbed hooks
  • Retrieve and recycle old line and dispose of it responsibly (lost gear can still snag or entangle an animal!)
  • Report illegal gillnets to Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources at (808) 643-DLNR (3567)

7. Report accidental hookings. It’s OK to call!

Hawaiian monk seal getting surgery on removing a large fishing hook from the species tongue by veterinarian.
A NOAA veterinarian and team removes large barbed circle hook from RH32 while under sedation at the NOAA Facility on Ford Island.

Accidents happen! If you accidentally hook a sea turtle or monk seal—try not to panic! 

If you accidentally hook a turtle:

  • Call (888) 256-9840, the NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline, for guidance
  • Reel in the turtle with care but do not drag it up a cliff
  • Hold the turtle by its shell
  • Cut the line close to the hook, or as short as possible, but leave the hook in place
  • Release the turtle with no line attached (the line is much worse than the hook!)

If you accidentally hook a monk seal:

  • Call the hotline immediately
  • Do not approach the seal or try to remove the hook yourself

8. Dim or turn off bright lights at the beach at night.

A sea turtle laying eggs in beach foliage.
A nesting female Hawksbill laying eggs (image digitally brightened for clarity). Credit: J.Sprague (USFWS)

Both residents and visitors alike enjoy beach recreation at night, but we’re not the only species that uses the beach after dusk. At night, the sea turtles of Hawaiʻi nest on beaches and hatchlings make their way to the ocean. The horizon over the ocean is brighter than the land, so hatchlings use this visual cue to find their way to the deep blue sea. Reducing bright lights on beaches can help prevent hatchlings from becoming disoriented and wandering into dangerous situations on land when they should be swimming out to sea.  

9. Boaters, easy on the throttle!

Injured green sea turtle with a cracked shell damaged from a boat.
Turtle shell damage: Boat propellers can severely injure turtles. Credit: Malama na Honu.

Go slow, there are sea turtles below. Boat propellers can cause fatal injuries to turtles, and hull damage from boat strikes can lead to sinking. Preventing a boat strike is a win-win situation! Preventive measures to avoid a vessel collision include:

  • Post a lookout to watch out for turtles, coral heads, swimmers, and divers 
  • Drive slowly (5–10 knots) near harbors and boat launches
  • Maintain "no wake" speeds within 200 feet of shore 
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to help see and avoid turtles
  • Never feed turtles so they do not associate boats with food

10. Educate Yourself About Wildlife Viewing Tours

Spinner dolphin leaping above the water.
Spinner dolphins are known to jump out of the water and spin as they enter and leave their daytime resting areas nearshore.

Seeing wildlife like whales and dolphins in their natural habitat helps us better appreciate and understand these amazing creatures. There are a number of commercial operations in Hawaiʻi that provide safe viewing of whales and dolphins. But steer clear of operators that offer “swim with” and other up-close opportunities. These activities can negatively impact the animals (and perhaps even violate laws in place to protect them from harassment and harm). If you’re looking to have a safe and respectful experience with whales and dolphins, ask questions. Potential tour operators can tell you how they comply with laws that help marine animals thrive.

Last updated by Pacific Islands Regional Office on April 16, 2024