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Viewing Marine Mammals: Know the Rules


With the exception of a few countries where they still like to kill dolphins, most boaters just want to look at wild dolphins, but that’s causing problems when people get too close.

The BBC is reporting that post-lockdown Britain is seeing more boaters on the water who are getting too close to the local dolphin population. Britain’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) said Chanonry Narrows, a dolphin feeding ground in the Moray Firth, was among the worst affected and there have been reports of boats being steered too close to dolphins elsewhere. WDC said in most cases people were unaware of the harm they could cause. But there have also been incidents where people were intentionally chasing or harassing dolphins, which may scare them away from areas where they seek food or may cause them to be struck and injured by a boat.

In Hawaii, the Hawaii Tribune reports that the National Marine Fisheries Service has published a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) that proposes a 50-yard barrier around Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Too many people have been swimming with the spinner dolphins or leapfrogging (placing a vessel in the path of an oncoming dolphin), which stresses the animals and doesn’t allow them to rest.

So, what are the rules about viewing marine wildlife when you’re out there boating in U.S waters?

Think twice before you approach any marine mammal because harassing marine mammals in U.S. waters is prohibited under the Marine Mammals Protection Act (MPPA) and the Endangered Species Act.

The public is prohibited from harassing, harming, pursuing, wounding, killing, capturing, or collecting marine species protected by the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

NOAA, which is responsible for enforcing the rules, urges members of the public to observe marine animals from a safe and respectful distance, and not to approach or touch them. That includes all cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), all sirenians (manatees and dugongs) and several marine carnivores (seals, otters, walrus, and polar bears).

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.

Here are some basic guidelines from NOAA, but keep in mind that states may have even more stringent regulations in place:

When watching marine mammals by boat:

  • Remain at least 100 yards from whales and at least 50 yards away from dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Federal law has specific distance requirements for some species.
    • Keep 100 yards away from humpback whales in Hawaiian and Alaskan waters.
    • Keep 200 yards away from killer whales in Washington State inland waters.
    • Keep 500 yards away from North Atlantic right whales anywhere in 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, and 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.

When watching sea turtles from a boat:

· 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, and operate at no-wake speed. Put engines in neutral if a sea turtle is observed. Allow it to pass and move away slowly.

NOAA is currently in the process of also developing drone regulations. And remember, NEVER feed wildlife.

For more detailed information, go to NOAA’s website


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