Please, no selfies with the seals: 6 ways to view wildlife responsibly

UPDATED: August 29, 2022.

Viewing marine animals in their natural habitat can be an exciting experience — watching whales breach, 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. 

Consider these 6 Golden Rules  for viewing marine life safely and responsibly:

 

Whale watchers get a glimpse of a humpback.
Whale watchers get a glimpse of a humpback. (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society)

1. View from a safe distance (which differs depending on species and location)

A seal with eyes closed.
Be a safe and responsible wildlife viewer: give seals space. (NOAA)

No selfies with seals or sea lions, please! When watching wildlife in their natural habitat, avoid getting too close. The natural behaviors of marine mammals and sea turtles can be interrupted by human actions. 

Grab your binoculars for a good look. Marine mammals and sea turtles need plenty of space for feeding, resting, avoiding predators, breeding, caring for their young and socializing, and shouldn’t be disturbed. Safe viewing distances are typically 300 feet for whales; 150 feet for dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions. These distances can vary depending on the species and particular habitat, so check local guidelines and regulations.  

Remember: Avoid doing something that could cause an animal to change its behavior.

2. Keep your snacks to yourself

Do not feed seals or sea lions.
Do not feed seals or sea lions. Feeding seals or sea lions teaches them to associate humans with food, attracting them to vessels or humans on beaches. Interactions with humans can end badly for you and for the animal. (NOAA)

While you may be enticed to feed this face, feeding seals, sea lions, and other marine wildlife is harmful to both you and the animal. Begging behaviors shown here are a result of being illegally fed by humans. 

Marine mammals are natural hunters, but if they are offered food, they start relying on handouts and become more likely to beg. This can lead to dangerous encounters with people and boats — leading to bites,  boat propeller injuries, entanglement in fishing line, or illness from ingesting human food. Watch this video, Lose the Loop, to find out how lost and discarded trash can attract the attention of marine life. Also watch this video: “Protecting Dolphins: How to Best View Them​.”

3. Reduce, reuse, recycle, and refrain: Help keep trash out of the ocean

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle entangled in balloons and ribbons.
This young kemp’s ridley sea turtle became entangled in balloons and ribbons. The ribbon then became entangled with a stick, four times the length of the turtle. (NOAA)

Marine animals can be entangled in trash or marine debris, accidentally eat it and cause themselves harm. Help keep our ocean free of trash. 

Sea turtles and small marine mammals can become entangled in human debris such as balloons, beverage six-pack rings and abandoned rope. 

Be a good ocean steward. When you leave the beach grab a piece of trash, even if it isn’t yours! Taking an extra minute to think about how you throw away trash and making sure it can’t fly away can make all the difference in saving sea turtles.

4. Keep pets away from wildlife

It’s fun to enjoy the beach with your pet. For their safety and the safety of nearby wildlife, please keep them on a leash.
It’s fun to enjoy the beach with your pet. For their safety and the safety of nearby wildlife, please keep them on a leash. (Flickr user SupportPDX/ Creative Commons license)

Seals, sea lions and sea turtles all come ashore to rest, care for their young and avoid predators. These animals need their space. Adult seals and sea lions are large, strong animals that can act aggressively if they perceive your furry best friend as a trespasser or threat within their territory. On the flip side, unleashed pets might feel similarly threatened and could attack marine animals resting onshore without mom. 

Marine mammals and pets can transmit diseases to each other. For example, morbillivirus spreads from cats into waterways and can infect Hawaiian monk seals. Make sure you use a leash with your pets when on a beach with marine life nearby to maintain safe distances and prevent the spread of diseases such as distemper, influenza or rabies.

5. Help us help wildlife in distress

Trained responders with the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute help a stranded dolphin.
Trained responders with the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute help a stranded dolphin. (Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute )

Beachgoers, boaters, anglers and wildlife viewers  are often the first people to find marine mammals that are stranded — i.e., sick, injured, out of habitat, otherwise in distress or dead. If you see a marine mammal or sea turtle that is stranded, immediately notify your local regional stranding network member organization. Be sure to note your location, accurately describe the scene and maintain a safe distance from the animal at all times. Do not attempt to touch or move the animal yourself; let professional wildlife rescue teams handle the situation.

6. Know before you go

Encountering wildlife can be a once-in-a lifetime opportunity! For their safety as well as yours, please follow the guidelines below, give wildlife plenty of space, be aware of local regulations and use your zoom lens or binoculars if you want that close-up view!