Pilots: Know Before You Go!

Overflight regulations within Olympic CoastGreater FarallonesMonterey Bay and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries require that motorized aircraft maintain minimum altitudes above specified coastal waters. Failure to comply with these minimum altitude limits is presumed to disturb marine mammals and seabirds and is a violation of federal regulations for the sanctuaries.

Overflight Regulations

Minimum altitude limits have existed within sanctuaries for many years, and in February 2012 a Final Rule standardized NOAA regulations across the sanctuaries to reflect a consistent and clear regulatory approach. The regulatory modifications were required by the FAA in order to post a clear notice to pilots on aeronautical charts about NOAA's regulated overflight zones within national marine sanctuaries.

Full text of the amendment to the Overflight Regulations for the Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, Greater Farallones and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuaries is posted in the Federal Register (Vol 77, No.17; published on Jan. 26, 2012) as the Final Rule (PDF, 160KB) effective Feb. 27, 2012. For the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations visit 15 CFR Part 922.

Why Fly Higher?

Direct flyovers or multiple passes over sensitive wildlife areas can harm wildlife and be unsafe for pilots. These NOAA overflight regulations pertain to all aircraft, including both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft.

The recommended best operating practice is to ALWAYS fly at least 2000 feet AGL over ALL National Marine Sanctuaries, coastal areas, and other sensitive environments. This protects both the pilot and the wildlife.

pigeon guillemots feeding while resting on a rock
Pigeon Guillemot. Credit: Ron LeValley


Successful breeding is critical for seabird populations. Seabirds have low reproductive rates and are susceptible to climate variability, prey availability and oceanic conditions. Seabirds form dense breeding colonies on offshore rocks, isolated sea stacks, islands and steep mainland cliffs. These areas are relatively void of land predators. However, low flying aircraft disrupt seabird nesting activities and cause adults to flee from and abandon their nests, which can break and knock eggs from the nest, or leave eggs and chicks exposed to predators. Monitoring data has shown that high levels of disturbance, including frequent mild disturbances or a single severe event, can cause complete breeding failure of a seabird colony, and/or result in colony abandonment.

steller sea lions on the shore of the southeast farllon island
Steller sea lions. Credit: Ron LeValley

Marine Mammals

Marine mammals react negatively to low-flying aircraft. Circling or multiple passes are disruptive to the natural behavior of marine mammals. Whales that are milling or resting at the surface are most sensitive. Seals and sea lions haul out on intertidal ledges, beaches and rocky inlets to nurse their pups, heal wounds and rest. Low overflights can frighten marine mammals into the water. During pupping season, low flying aircraft can cause a mother and pup to become separated which can lead to starvation for the pup, or result in stampedes which may cause trampling and death.

Protect wildlife, stay safe, and stay within the law

The use of aircraft to harass any bird, fish, or other animal is also prohibited under the Airborne Hunting Act (16 USC 742j1). The NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked with the Department of Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to successfully prosecute aircraft pilots who disturb seabirds and marine mammals by flying below required altitudes.