Viewing Marine Life
Watching marine animals in their natural habitat can be a positive way to promote conservation and respect for animals and their environment.
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 with 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.
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.
Remain a respectful distance from sea turtles. The minimum recommended distance by land or sea is 50 yards—1/2 a football field.
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.
Limit time observing marine mammals to 30 minutes or less. Your continued presence can cause animals unnecessary stress.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 lion—it’s harmful and illegal.
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.
Many of the most popularly viewed animals in U.S. coastal waters are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions are also protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These laws help protect marine mammals and sea turtles from harm, including having their natural behaviors interrupted by human actions.
Before spending time on or near the ocean, know the guidelines and regulations for viewing these marine protected species in their habitats. Viewing guidelines and laws vary by region, state, and species. Please be familiar with the applicable rules before you visit our coastal waters—see the More Information box.
*Do not feed, or attempt to feed, any marine mammals. It’s harmful and illegal.
*Do not swim with, ride, pet, touch, or attempt to interact with marine mammals or sea turtles in the wild.
Remain at least 100 yards away—about the length of a football field unless other rules apply. 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.
Remain at least 50 yards away—about 1/2 a football field. In some locations, the minimum distance may be 100 yards—know before you go.
For seals and sea lions in the water, or on shore, remain at least 50 yards away—about 1/2 a football field. This includes people and pets.
For turtles in the water, or nesting on beaches, remain at least 50 yards away—about 1/2 a football field. This includes people and pets.
When viewing wildlife at sea, all boats, jet skis, paddleboards, kayaks, and other watercraft should maintain appropriate distances from marine mammals and sea turtles, while observing appropriate speed limits. General guidelines are provided here, but some species have rules that are specific to them (see section on species-specific laws below).
Remain at least 100 yards from large whales, and 50 yards from dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and sea turtles. 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 throughout 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.
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.
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 throughout U.S. waters.
Avoid buzzing, hovering, landing, taking off, and taxiing near marine mammals on land or in the water. These activities are likely to harass the animals and cause stress.
Avoid flying drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), near animals. The noise and close proximity of drones can harass the animals and cause stress.
A note on drone/UAS guidance:
NOAA Fisheries is currently developing national guidance for drone (or UAS) operations targeting marine mammals and sea turtles. Until then, NOAA Fisheries reminds the public that dolphins, whales, seals, and sea lions are protected species and harming or disturbing them can be a violation of federal law.
It is important to remember that the Federal Aviation Administration provides rules for drone operation. In addition, the U.S. National Park Service has prohibited the use of drones in many National Parks, some of which provide habitat to marine mammals.
Researchers may use drones/UAS to conduct scientific research on protected species only if the proper permits and authorizations are secured. Learn more about research permitting.
Remain at least 50 yards away—about 1/2 a football field—from sea turtles nesting or resting on beaches. This includes people and pets.
Share the shore! For seals and sea lions on shore, people and pets should remain at least 50 yards away—about the length of a football field. Please move away at the first sign of disturbance or agitation.
It is normal for a mother seal to leave her young pup alone on the beach for up to 24 hours while she feeds. You may not see the mother offshore, but if she sees you near her pup, she may not think it’s safe to come back and could abandon her pup.
Give moms and pups space. If you see a seal pup, keep your distance. As a rule of thumb, stay at least 50 yards (150 feet) from seals. A curious seal pup might approach on its own, but the mother is likely to be nearby, and may see your interaction as a threat.
No selfies with seals! As tempting as it might be to get that perfect shot of yourself or your child with an adorable seal pup, please do the right thing and leave the seal pup alone. Getting too close to a wild animal puts you—and the animal—at risk.
Do not feed, or attempt to feed, wild seals and sea lions. Seals have powerful jaws, and can leave a lasting impression. When you get too close to a wild animal, you risk stressing or threatening it, and stressed animals are much more likely to act unpredictably.
Some species require additional protections under the law. The following regulations are legally enforceable.
Be whale wise—remain 200 yards away (about the length of 2 football fields).
Boaters and watercraft should not leapfrog killer whales. They must stay out of the forward path of whales, at any point within 400 yards.
Remain 500 yards away—about 1/4 mile.
Any vessel finding itself within the 500-yard buffer zone created by a surfacing right whale must depart immediately at a safe, slow speed.
Maintain a 1,500-foot minimum altitude over North Atlantic right whales (applies to aircraft and drones).
The public may photograph or film marine mammals and sea turtles as long as the recommended guidelines and distances for viewing marine animals are followed and the animals are not disturbed. Do not take “selfies” with marine mammals or sea turtles. It can harass the animals , which is illegal, and can be dangerous to human safety.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a permit may be issued for photography of marine mammals in the wild for educational or commercial purposes where the photography activities will not exceed Level B harassment. This permit is designed to accommodate professional photographers and filmmakers who have discrete projects and time frames that will result in products such as documentary films or commercial photographs.
Note that this permit is not available for photography directed toward, or that may affect, marine mammals listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Many government and private researchers are using small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—also called drones—to study and observe marine mammals and other protected species. Often this work Includes aerial surveys and identification work. Researchers may only use UAS to conduct scientific research on protected species if the proper permits and authorizations are secured.
Know the law—learn the regulations and viewing guidelines before spending time on the ocean and along our coasts. Be aware that guidelines and laws can vary by state and by species.
Report animals that appear injured or sick. If you think an animal is in trouble—if it’s entangled, stranded, sick, or injured—please report it. And, keep your distance. These animals are already vulnerable and may be more likely to bite.
Keep pets away from marine life. Wild animals can injure and spread diseases to pets, and in turn, pets can harm, injure, disturb, and spread diseases to marine wildlife. If you are traveling with pets, always keep them on a leash and away from areas frequented by marine animals like seals and sea lions.
Report incidents of people or pets tormenting, disturbing, or attempting to touch a marine mammal or sea turtle. Contact NOAA’s National Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1864.
Never feed or attempt to feed marine animals—it’s illegal. Marine wildlife, like all wild animals, may bite and inflict injuries to people who try to feed them. Feeding by humans can alter animals’ natural behavior, make them dependent on handouts, and can be harmful to their health.
Limit your viewing time to 30 minutes. Time spent observing an individual or group of marine mammals should be limited to 1/2 hour. And when observing animals from a boat, keep in mind that your vessel may not be the only one that approaches the same animal(s) that day. Prolonged exposure to several vessels increases the likelihood that marine mammals will be disturbed.
Cautiously move away from animals if you observe any of the following behaviors:
Rapid changes in direction or swimming speed.
Erratic swimming patterns.
Escape tactics such as prolonged diving, underwater exhalation, underwater course changes, or rapid swimming at the surface.
Tail slapping or lateral tail swishing at the surface.
Female attempting to shield a calf with her body or by her movements.
Chuffing (loud exhalations) at surface.
Seals or sea lions lunging, moving away, fleeing or trampling pups.
Help NOAA Fisheries learn more about whales by reporting whale sightings.
North Atlantic right whales along the East Coast:
From Maine to Virginia, call (866) 755-NOAA.
From North Carolina to Florida, call (877) WHALE-HELP.
Or, contact the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16.
Southern Resident killer whales in Puget Sound, Washington:
Call (866) 672-2638 (866-ORCANET) or (800) 562-8832.
Whales in Alaska:
Or, contact the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16.
Lend a hand with trash removal. Garbage and marine debris is a big threat to marine animals. Carry a trash bag with you and pick up litter found along the shore and in the water. Plastic bags, floating debris, and monofilament line pose great risk to marine mammals and sea turtles.