Humpback whale tails.

Marine Life Viewing Guidelines

Marine Life Viewing Guidelines

Viewing marine animals in their natural habitat can be an exciting experience—watching a group of dolphins leaping across the water, seeing a sea turtle nesting on a beach, or encountering a colony of seals basking in the sun. Although it can be tempting to try to get close to these marine animals, it’s always best to view them from a safe and respectful distance for their safety—and yours. Learning how to interact and observe ocean animals can help you make the right decisions when you encounter them by water, land, or air.

Regulations and guidelines have been developed with specific recommendations and distances for viewing whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, sea turtles, and other marine animals. These guidelines and laws can vary by state and by species, so know the rules before you visit our coastal waters.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act do not provide for permits or other authorizations to view or interact with wild marine mammals and sea turtles, except for specific listed purposes such as scientific research. We maintain as policy that interacting with wild marine life outside of permitted research should not be attempted and viewing marine mammals and sea turtles must be conducted in a manner that does not harass the animals. We do not support, condone, approve, or authorize activities that involve closely approaching, interacting, or attempting to interact with whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and sea turtles in the wild. This includes attempting to swim with, pet, touch, or elicit a reaction from the animals.

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FACT

100 yards for whale watching

Observe whales from a safe distance of at least 100 yards—the length of a football field—unless other species-specific rules apply. For example, federal law requires vessels to remain 100 yards away from humpback whales in Hawaii and Alaska waters, 200 yards from killer whales in Washington State inland waters, and 500 yards away from North Atlantic right whales anywhere in the U.S.

50 yards for sea turtles

Remain a respectful distance from sea turtles. The minimum recommended distance by land or sea is 50 yards—1/2 a football field.

50 yards for seals and sea lions

As a rule of thumb, stay at least 50 yards—1/2 a football field—from seals and sea lions. And be sure to keep your distance from pups. A curious pup might approach on its own, but the mother is likely to be nearby, and may see your interaction as a threat.

30 minutes maximum viewing time

Limit time observing marine mammals to 30 minutes or less. Your continued presence can cause animals unnecessary stress.

1,000-foot altitude for marine mammal viewing by air

Maintain a 1,000-foot minimum altitude when viewing marine mammals from the air in manned aircraft (e.g., helicopters, airplanes). Federal law requires aircraft to fly no lower than 1,000 feet above humpback whales in Hawaii and 1,500 feet above North Atlantic right whales anywhere in the U.S. Buzzing, hovering, landing, taking off, and taxiing near marine mammals on land or in the water is likely to harass the animals and cause stress. NOAA Fisheries is currently developing national guidance for drone operations (unmanned aircraft systems) for marine mammals and sea turtles. Check back soon.  

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Whales

Admiring whales from a distance is the safest and most responsible way to view them in their natural habitat. They are wild, unpredictable animals that can move surprisingly fast. Approaching them too closely endangers you and the whales, and may violate federal law. When boating, stay at least 100 yards away from whales (the length of a football field). Federal law requires vessels to remain 100 yards away from humpback whales in Hawaii and Alaska waters, 200 yards from killer whales in Washington State inland waters, and 500 yards away from North Atlantic right whales anywhere in U.S. waters.

Learn the guidelines and distances

Dolphins and Porpoises

Viewing dolphins in their natural habitat is an educational and enriching experience if done safely and responsibly. As human interactions with wild dolphins increase, the risk of disturbing or injuring them also increases. Never feed a dolphin—it’s harmful and illegal. Always stay at least 50 yards away from dolphins (1/2 a football field) when viewing from watercraft. In some locations, the minimum distance may be 100 yards—know before you go.

Learn the guidelines and distances

Sea Turtles

All sea turtles found in the U.S. are listed under the ESA which makes it illegal to touch, harass, harm, possess, or kill turtles, their eggs, or hatchlings. These animals spend the majority of their lives in the ocean, but come onto beaches to lay their eggs or bask in the sun. When viewing a sea turtle in the water or on a beach, remain at a respectful distance—the minimum recommended is 50 yards (1/2 a football field). 

Learn the guidelines and distances

Seals and Sea Lions

Seals and sea lions are ocean animals that spend a portion of their time out of the water on beaches, docks, and jetties to rest, molt, or nurse their pups. Close encounters with people can be harmful and continued disturbances may cause stress, including causing mothers to abandon their pups. You’re too close if an animal starts to stare, fidget, or flee into the water. Even if you don't see these reactions, keep yourself and your pets at least 50 yards away (1/2 a football field). Keep your dog on a leash around seals or sea lions to prevent bites to the dog and the seals or sea lions. And never feed or attempt to feed a seal or sea lionit’s harmful and illegal.

Learn the guidelines and distances

Corals and Other Protected Species

Many corals, fish, and other marine life—invertebrates like abalone and plants like Johnson’s seagrass—are protected under the ESA which makes it illegal to touch, harm, or kill them. When snorkeling or diving on coral reefs, be careful not to touch, kick, or stand on the corals. And don’t touch other animals—the slimy coating on fish and many marine invertebrates protects them from infection and is easily rubbed off with a hand, glove, or foot.

Learn more about GOOD ocean etiquette

Insight

Watching marine animals in their natural habitat can be a positive way to promote conservation and respect for animals and their environment.

Hawaiian monk seal