How to Safely Watch Marine Mammals - Visit Skagit Valley - North Cascades National Park to Farmlands to Salish Sea

How to Safely Watch Marine Mammals

We know how exciting it is to see a marine mammal in the wild! But we also know that it’s very important to view these incredible animals safely and responsibly. Pacific Mammal Research (PacMam), based in Anacortes, offers this guidance on how to watch marine mammals safely whether you are watching from land or sea.

From Shore

If you are lucky enough to be able to see marine mammals while on-shore, that’s great! Follow these guidelines to be sure you don’t interrupt any crucial behaviors:

  • Be sure to stay at least 100 yards away from marine mammals that are hauled out or visible from shore. And yes, that includes your pets too! This also means absolutely no selfies with the seals – yes, we know it’s tempting, but PLEASE don’t approach these animals or stand close to them! They might be cute but they are still wild animals.
  • You are definitely too close if you start to notice the animals staring, fidgeting, or fleeing. Back up and give them some more room – these behaviors indicate the animals are frightened or distressed and may even cause mothers to abandon their pups.
  • DO NOT intentionally approach a seal or sea lion on shore! If you think an animal is in distress, call your local Stranding Network immediately.
  • Don’t forget, female seals and sea lions often leave their pups on shore while they go out foraging for food, so if you see a lone pup by itself don’t panic. It’s likely that the mom is just out getting some food.
  • Use your binoculars to get the best views and be respectful of seals and sea lions that may be using the shore. Remember, it is a Federal offence to harass seals or sea lions.

From A Dock or Wharf

These same rules apply when watching marine mammals from a dock or a wharf:

  • Stay 100 yards away, move back or leave if you see the animal show signs of distress or fear (see above), and most importantly do NOT directly approach the animal!
  • Do not try to go around an animal hauled out on a dock – you will be getting far too close. Try to wait it out and allow them to move away on their own.
  • If you are accessing a boat or vessel, move slowly and calmly to avoid startling the seal or sea lion. If an animal has hauled out right next to your boat or vessel, where possible try to wait it out and allow them to move on their own before trying to access your vessel!
  • It might be tempting to take photos or selfies with marine mammals on a dock, especially if it’s your personal dock or wharf. But PLEASE remember these are still wild animals and need your space and consideration.
  • Mostly, seals and sea lions will utilize docks and wharfs to haul out for rest and thermoregulation. Scaring them or chasing them back into the water may jeopardize their energetic balance and wellbeing.

Photo: Nancy Steinberg, Seattle Magazine

From Water

Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions on the U.S. West Coast are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and many of them are also protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These laws are in place to prevent disturbance, disruption, or harm to these animals by humans – and that includes watching them! Make sure to familiarize yourself with the regulations for your area, as these vary with location. Below are some basic guidelines and specific requirements for Washington State:

  • Seals, Sea Lions, Dolphins & Porpoises: Stay at least 50 yards away (the length of 1/2 a football field). For some dolphin and porpoise species the minimum distance is 100 yards, so be sure to double-check depending on your location.
  • Whales: Stay at least 100 yards away (the length of a football field) from all large whale species. Currently in Washington State vessels must stay 200 yards away from killer whales (orcas).
  • Ideally, when on the water you should parallel marine mammals, staying slightly behind them. Always move around animals by going behind them.
  • NEVER feed or attempt to feed wildlife – including marine mammals! This is not only illegal, it can be very detrimental to the animal.
  • Do NOT attempt to swim with, touch, pet, ride, or interact with marine mammals in the wild.
  • Try to limit the time you spend observing individuals or groups of marine mammals to less than 30 minutes.
  • Don’t chase, harass, leap-frog (intentionally speed up to get ahead of the animal then stop to watch it pass), or corral any marine mammals with your vessel or watercraft. This includes pursuing or following marine mammals.
  • Avoid approaching marine mammals if another vessel or watercraft is already there – you’re less likely to disturb them that way.
  • Avoid revving your engine, suddenly changing speed, or going fast around whales, dolphins, or porpoises.
  • If you see marine mammals or know they’re in the area (hint: whale watch vessels are a great indicator!), slow down and operate at a no-wake speed. If you are close to animals, put your engine in neutral until they go by.

For more guidance on viewing marine mammals in the wild, please go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Website. You can also find specific guidance and resources for how to view seals and sea lions from shore here.

Pacific Mammal Research (PacMam) is a scientific research organization that studies free-ranging marine mammals in the Salish Sea to improve our understanding of their life history, behavior, social structure, and ecology within a dynamic and changing environment. Using traditional and innovative scientific techniques we provide information critical for conservation measures and create public awareness through education.

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