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How Close is Too Close?

Viewing wildlife responsibly means understanding body language signals.

Have you ever been unsure about how close is too close when viewing marine mammals? For seals and sea lions in the water, or on shore, our Share the Shore Guidelines encourage remaining at least 100 yards—about a football field—away. This includes both people and pets. But judging distance can be difficult. 

Here are some useful tips on how to read seal and sea lion body language in order to maintain a responsible distance:

How close it too close? infographic
For your safety, learn to read seal and sea lion body language. Photos Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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  1. When a seal or sea lion is staring at you, this is your cue to stop moving. This means they are alert and aware of your presence. You should stop where you are and view the animal without getting closer. Note: Some pups may be too young for a well-developed wariness response, always leave pups extra space.
  2. When the seal or sea lion becomes fidgety, moving away from you or looking around for an escape route, this means they are stressed, disturbed, and agitated. This behavior means you are too close and you should back away with caution. Remember, these are wild animals that can react to your presence in a way that is dangerous to themselves, their young, or you.
  3. If the animal flees, it means you have missed the behavior indicators and it is too late. It is urgent that you move far away and leave plenty of distance between you and the area the animal fled so that it can feel safe for them to return. When seals flee, they can trample their pups or abandon them on the beach. They will not come back to care for their pups unless they feel it is completely safe to do so.
  4. Share these tips on how to read seal body language widely and follow the Share the Shore principles so everyone can enjoy the beach!

The West Coast provides many opportunities to observe seals and sea lions as they swim, rest, or tend to their young. For your safety and the animals’ health, never approach or interact with a marine mammal.

Find a safe distance to view these wild animals. Bring your binoculars and enjoy spotting local seals and sea lions. If you see an injured, stranded or dead animal please call NOAA’s West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 866-767-6114.

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on July 13, 2023