Commercial or Educational Photography Permit

This permit authorizes photography or filming of marine mammals that are not listed as threatened or endangered.


Marine Mammal Protection Act
Permit Type
Commercial / Educational Photography
Estimated Processing Time
4-6 months
Download Application


This permit allows you to approach marine mammals to obtain images or video that you will use for a discreet project.  Examples include documentary films, television series, and books.  This permit can cover filming activities from vessels, underwater, on land, from airplanes and helicopters, from unmanned aircraft systems, and from other remote devices. This permit only applies to marine mammals under NOAA Fisheries’ jurisdiction:  whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

To be eligible for this type of permit:

  • Your project must have a specific purpose, a defined timeline, and a way that it will be made publicly available.
  • The marine mammals you wish to film/photograph cannot be listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Your activities cannot exceed Level B harassment.  This means that you cannot do anything that touches the animal or may injure them.
  • Personnel must have experience with wildlife photography.


This permit is not for:

  • Filming/photographing endangered and threatened marine mammals.  Examples of ineligible species include North Atlantic right whales, blue whales, Southern Resident stock of killer whales, and Hawaiian monk seals.
  • Filming/photographing marine mammals under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:  sea otters, polar bears, walruses, and manatees.
  • Filming/photographing other protected species like sea turtles, sturgeon, or sawfish.
  • Conducting scientific research.
  • Filming activities that may cause Level A harassment.  This would include attaching animal-borne cameras.

If the marine mammals you wish to film are listed as threatened or endangered, you cannot apply for this type of permit. However, you have several options for obtaining images or video of ESA-listed species:

  1. Use footage or images that already exist.
  2. Film in locations outside the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s jurisdiction.  If you are a U.S. citizen, that means working in the territorial waters or lands of a foreign country.  If you are not a U.S. citizen, that means working outside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.  Keep in mind that you may have to obtain permits from the foreign country where you choose to work.
  3. Collaborate with a permitted scientist.  We permit many researchers who study ESA-listed marine mammals.  If they are willing to partner with you, we can issue them a Filming Authorization letter, which will allow your crew to film while the scientists conduct their research.  The authorization process is relatively quick and simple.  Your activities as a photographer cannot alter their field activities.  
  4. Follow NOAA Fisheries’ marine mammal viewing guidelines and approach regulations.  These guidelines and regulations, which vary by species and location, list distances where you can safely observe marine mammals without disturbing them.  If you choose to remain a safe distance from the animals, you can film or photograph them without needing a permit.  With today’s advanced camera systems, this is a viable option for some filmmakers.

Contact our office at 301-427-8401 if you wish to discuss these options.

Please note: some species, such as humpback whales, have a complicated ESA status. Humpback whales in some parts of the world are listed as endangered.  In other parts of the world, humpback whales are listed as threatened and in still other places humpbacks are not listed.  This means that depending on where you plan to film, you may or may not be able to get a commercial or educational photography permit to film humpback whales.

Be sure to check on a species’ status before applying for a permit.

A commercial or educational photography permit can be issued for a maximum of 5 years, but is often issued for shorter periods of time due to project timelines and production schedules.



You need to provide:

  • A detailed description of your project, including the location, type of filming, timeframe, and species to be filmed. 
  • An explanation of how the final product will be publicly available.  For example, will it be screened in theaters, will it be aired to television, will it be included in a published book? 
  • A current qualifications form, biosketch, or CV to demonstrate the qualifications and experience of Principal Investigators and Co-Investigators with the duties described in the application.

How to apply

You should apply at least 4 months (preferably 6 months) prior to the desired start date of your project.  To expedite processing of your request, be sure to follow the application instructions (PDF, 16 pages).  A Word version of the application instructions is also available (16 pages).  If we review your application, and the application instructions were not followed, your application will be returned to you.

You may send your completed application via:

1. Email:

2. Fax:  301-713-0376

3.  Mail: 

Division Chief​​

Permits and Conservation Division
Office of Protected Resources
1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705
Silver Spring, Maryland 20910-3282

What Happens After You Submit

You can expect your application to be processed within 4-6 months. 

Permit Processing

  1. After you submit, two permit analysts will be assigned to review your application.
  2. Following the initial review, you may be asked for additional information.  You should address any questions on the application within 60 days or your application will be considered abandoned and withdrawn.
  3. Once the application is determined to be complete, we will publish a notice in the Federal Register, which starts a mandatory 30-day public comment period.   At the same time, we will send your application to the Marine Mammal Commission, NOAA Fisheries Regional Offices and Science Centers, and potentially other subject matter experts (e.g., partner institutions, federal agencies, and state organizations) for review. 
  4. You may be asked to address any questions received during the comment period.
  5. A final decision on your application will be made by the Office Director.

You can check on the status of your application by contacting your permit analyst.


If your permit is issued

You will need to sign your permit and return a copy of the signature page to us. 

Regional Notification:  you will be required to notify the applicable NOAA Fisheries Regional Office(s) 2 weeks prior to starting your field work each year or season.

Reporting:  each year that your permit is valid, you will be required to submit an annual report.  Reports can be submitted via APPS, our online application system.  Learn more about reporting requirements.

Changes to your permit:  you can request changes to your permit once it has been issued.  Minor changes like adding or deleting personnel are simple and can be done quickly.  Changes such as adding species, increasing numbers, or adding new filming methods, are more involved and will likely require a 30-day comment period and take 4-6 months to process. 

Credits:  your final product will need to include your permit number.  You will also need to include your permit number in other formats that use the photographs or video, such as DVDs and websites.

Messaging:  many projects conducted under a commercial or educational photography  permit highlight the biology, ecology, or conservation of marine mammals.  We are happy to provide you with information on U.S. laws and regulations that protect these species.  We also encourage you to explain responsible wildlife viewing to your audience.  Please contact our office at 301-427-8401 if you’d like to discuss how to incorporate appropriate messaging into your project.

Need Help?

Permits and Conservation Division

Office of Protected Resources
Phone: 301-427-8401
Fax: 301-713-0376

Last updated by Office of Protected Resources on 07/24/2018