Humpback whale tails.

Marine Life Viewing Guidelines

Guidelines & Distances

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.

General Viewing Guidelines

*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.

Whales

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. 

Dolphins and Porpoises

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.

Seals and Sea Lions

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.

Sea Turtles

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.

Guidelines When Viewing At Sea

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).

When Viewing Marine Mammals By Watercraft

  • 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 wildlifeany 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 Viewing Sea Turtles By Watercraft

  • 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.

Guidelines When Viewing From 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 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.

Guidelines When Viewing From Land

  • 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.

Species-Specific Laws

Some species require additional protections under the law. The following regulations are legally enforceable.

Killer Whales in Puget Sound, Washington

  • 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.

Learn more about killer whales in Puget Sound

North Atlantic Right Whales on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard 

  • 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).

Learn more about how to identify a right whale

Humpback Whales in Alaska and Hawaii

  • Remain 100 yards away—about the length of a football field.
  • Federal regulations also restrict close approaches by air for humpback whales in Hawaii—maintain a 1,000-foot minimum altitude.

Learn more about humpback whales in Alaska 

Learn more about humpback whales in the Pacific Islands/Hawaii