Viewing Marine Life

June 26, 2017

Watching marine animals in their natural habitat can be a positive way to promote conservation and respect for animals and their environment. But irresponsible human behavior can disturb animals, destroy important habitats, and result in injury to animals and people. Before spending time on or near the ocean, know the regulations and guidelines for viewing and approaching marine mammals and sea turtles.

How your actions can impact marine wildlife

Watching marine animals in the wild is an awe-inspiring experience, so it’s important to respect marine life and their habitats to ensure they are here for future generations to enjoy. Irresponsible human behavior can disturb animals, destroy important habitats, and even result in injury to animals and people.

Human activity might result in:

  • Separation of mothers and their young.
  • Disruption of migratory patterns.
  • Disruption of social groups such as killer whale pods.
  • Disruption of resting activities by seals, sea lions, and sea turtles.
  • Interference in breeding and/or reproductive and rearing activities.

While viewing marine wildlife, your actions should not cause a change in an animal’s behavior. Individual animals’ reactions will vary, so carefully observe all animals in the vicinity. Assume that your action is a disturbance and cautiously leave the area if you observe any of the following unusual behaviors:

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises

  • Changes in swimming, such as rapid changes in direction or speed.
  • Escape tactics such as prolonged diving, underwater exhalation, underwater course changes, or rapid swimming at the surface.
  • A female attempting to shield a calf with her body or by her movements.
  • Surface displays like tail slapping or lateral tail swishing at the surface.

Seals and sea lions

  • Increased movements away from the disturbance; hurried entry into the water by many animals, or herd movement toward the water.
  • Increased vocalization, aggressive behavior by many animals towards the disturbance, and/or several individuals raising their heads simultaneously.
  • A mother leaving her pup.

Sea turtles

  • A nesting turtle aborting her nesting attempt.
  • A basking turtle moving toward the water.
  • Hatchlings changing direction and moving toward a light or other distraction, rather than toward the water.
  • Changes in swimming, such as rapid changes in direction or speed.

For you and your pet’s safety

It’s important to keep pets away from marine mammals, for their safety and yours.

Pets should always be leashed when wild animals are near to prevent injury and the spread of disease. Pets off-leash can bite seal and sea lion pups, causing injury and spreading disease. Adult seals and sea lions are large, strong predators that can exhibit aggressive behaviors if provoked. These are wild animals that can injure or spread disease to pets and humans. It is safest for all concerned to have pets leashed when marine mammals are present on the beach.

When viewing wildlife at sea, vessels should maintain appropriate distance from any marine animal and observe appropriate speed limits. Whales are the largest animals on Earth, and they are known to breach out of the water. In some cases, they have landed on boats and kayaks, causing vessel damage and human injury.

Share the Sea—guidelines for water viewing

When watching marine mammals by boat:

  • Remain at least 100 yards from whales and at least 50 yards away from dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Federal law has specific distance requirements for some species.
    • Keep 100 yards away from humpback whales in Hawaiian and Alaskan waters.
    • Keep 200 yards away from killer whales in Washington State inland waters.
    • Keep 500 yards away from North Atlantic right whales anywhere in U.S. waters.
  • Limit time spent observing individuals and groups of animals to 30 minutes or less.

  • Do not chase, encircle, or leapfrog animals with any watercraft. Do not trap animals between watercraft or the shore.

  • Avoid approaching marine mammals when another watercraft is near. Multiple vessels are more likely to disturb marine mammals.

  • Avoid excessive speed or sudden changes in speed or direction near whales, dolphins, or porpoises.

  • When encountering marine mammals, slow down, operate at no-wake speed. Put your engine in neutral when whales approach to pass. Learn more about whale watching by boat

  • Avoid approaching whales, dolphins, and porpoises when calves are present.  Never put your watercraft between a mother and calf.

  • Be wary of breaching and flipper-slapping whales that might injure people or watercraft.

  • Stay clear of light green bubble patches from humpback whales. These are sub-surface bubbles before whales rise to feed at the surface.

  • Never pursue or follow marine wildlife—any vessel movement should be from the recommended distance and slightly parallel to or from the rear of the animal. If you need to move around marine wildlife, do so from behind. Never approach head-on.

  • Do not intentionally direct your watercraft or accelerate toward a marine mammal with the intent of creating a pressure wake allowing them to bow or wake-ride.

  • Slowly leave the area if marine mammals show signs of disturbance. 

When watching sea turtles from a boat:

  • Remain at least 50 yards from sea turtles.

  • Do not feed, or attempt to feed, any marine turtles.

  • Avoid excessive speed or sudden changes in speed or direction near sea turtles.

  • Do not chase, encircle, or trap sea turtles between watercraft and the shore.

  • While viewing a sea turtle slow down, operate at no-wake speed. Put engines in neutral if a sea turtle is observed. Allow it to pass and move away slowly.

Please remember…it is illegal to closely approach, touch, or feed any marine mammal or sea turtle in the wild.

Learn more about viewing guidelines and distances.

Share the Shore—guidelines for beach viewing

When viewing seals or sea lions hauled out on land or ice:

  • Avoid making the animal(s) aware of your presence: keep noise down, stay hidden, and stay at least 50 yards downwind of any animals.
  • Pups are often left alone for up to 24 hours while the mother feeds. They are not abandoned and should not be disturbed.
  • Do not offer food to wild animals or discard fish or fish waste on the beach; it is illegal to feed any marine mammal.
  • Do not touch or swim with the animals.
  • Taking “selfies” with seals or sea lions from close distances is illegal.
  • Remember to keep your distance.

When viewing sea turtles on nesting beaches:

  • Remember to keep your distance.
  • Avoid shining lights at nesting sea turtles.
  • Remove anything you bring to the beach, knock over any sandcastles you build, and fill in any holes.
  • Avoid driving on the beach.
  • Learn more about viewing sea turtles from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Please remember…it is illegal to closely approach, touch, or feed any marine mammal or sea turtle in the wild.

Learn more about viewing guidelines and distances

Operate drones with caution

The noise and close proximity of drones can disturb marine wildlife. When viewing marine mammals from the air using a drone:

  • Maintain a 1,000-foot minimum altitude.
  • Avoid buzzing, hovering, landing, taking off, or taxiing near marine mammals (on land or in the water), as these actions may alter animal behavior.

Drones are used by researchers following specific permitting conditions. Learn more about drone operation for scientific research.

Know the law

The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the “take” of all marine mammals in U.S. waters.

Take means "to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill." Take includes feeding or attempting to feed a marine mammal in the wild. Some exceptions are made for authorized scientific research and subsistence hunting by Alaska natives.

Harass means "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, sheltering."

The Endangered Species Act prohibits the “take” of species listed as endangered or threatened. The definition of take under the Endangered Species Act adds the terms harm, pursue, shoot, wound, trap and collect to the Marine Mammal Protection Act definition of take. Possession of whole or parts of ESA-listed species is also prohibited.