Wildlife Viewing Guidelines

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Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

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! Continue reading and take the pledge to have a memorable experience.

a turtle swims just below the surface of the water

Keep Hands to Yourself

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Keep wildlife safe and healthy.

Attempting to touch, handle, or ride wildlife can injure the animal, put you at risk and is illegal for many species.

an entangled turtle

Report Wildlife that Seems Abandoned or Sick

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Leave it to the experts.

Some animals come to shore to rest and feed— there may be nothing wrong. Do not approach any wildlife, even if it appears sick or orphaned. Instead, contact the local authorities for help.

Leashed dog with owner walk in shallow water.

Keep Pets Home or on a Leash

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Wildlife and pets can harm each other.

Pets are not welcome everywhere; check local guidelines for restrictions. If pets are allowed, always keep them on a leash and away from wildlife. Wildlife and pets can cause stress, harm and sickness to one another.

two children look at a whale fluke from a boat

Hang Back and Enjoy the View

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Wildlife need their space.

For your best chance to observe some amazing natural behaviors, avoid making animals feel stressed or threatened by moving back to the recommended or legally required distance. If an animal starts to stare, fidget or flee, calmly back away and give them more space.

birds stand on marine debris

Lend a Hand with Trash Removal

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Keep their home clean.

Garbage is one of the greatest threats to marine wildlife. Pick up litter and recycle when possible. If you’re on a boat, be sure to secure your trash on board.

a gull holding a fish in its mouth

Keep your Snacks to Yourself

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Wildlife can find their own food.

Feeding or attempting to attract wildlife with food, decoys, sound, or light is illegal for many species. Animals can become too accustomed to humans, which can cause sickness and even death.

people look through binoculares at birds in the distance

Lead by Example

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Help others become responsible wildlife watchers.

Practicing responsible wildlife viewing encourages others to do the same. Choose tour operators who follow these principles.

Take the Pledge for Wildlife

Respect. Protect. Enjoy.

Download Pocket Guidelines


Even if you are keeping a safe distance between yourself and an animal, wildlife may attempt to approach you for a number of reasons. They may see you as a food source, or they may be defending their territory or their young. Remember, wild animals are just that - wild. For your safety and the safety of the animal, remain facing the animal and back away slowly to re-establish a safe viewing distance.

Not only is harassing, disturbing, or feeding wildlife harmful to the animals, it is also illegal in many cases. There are a number of federal laws in place that protect marine wildlife:

  • Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) - This law prohibits the “take of marine mammals.” The term “take” refers to the acts of harassing, disturbing, injuring, hunting, and killing marine mammals or any attempt to engage in such conduct. MMPA regulations also include feeding as a form of prohibited “take.” All marine mammals - including seals, sea lions, dolphins, and whales - are protected under the MMPA. You can learn more about the MMPA here.
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA) - The ESA prohibits the “take” of a threatened or endangered species in U.S. territorial waters. The term “take” refers to the act of harassing, pursuing, harming, hunting, shooting, killing, trapping, capturing, collecting, or any attempt to engage in such conduct. You can learn more about the ESA here.
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) - This law prohibits the take, capture, kill, sale, purchase, or transport of migratory birds or any of their parts (including feathers, nests, or eggs), or attempts to engage in such conduct. You can learn more about the MBTA here.
  • National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) - The NMSA provides authority for comprehensive conservation and management of national marine sanctuaries and activities affecting them. You can learn more about the NMSA here.

When viewing wildlife, your actions should never cause a change in animal behavior. Fidgeting and fleeing are universal signs of disturbance in wildlife, but different species may react differently. Before you set off on your adventure, learn the wildlife warning signs that let you know you’re too close to an animal. Individual animals’ reactions will vary, so carefully observe all animals in the vicinity. Here are some common signs of disturbance in different species:

  • Birds
    • Head-bobbing
    • Increased vocalizations
    • Adult birds leaving their nest
  • Seals and sea lions
    • Increased or rapid movements away from the disturbance
    • Hurried entry into the water or herd movement toward the water
    • Increased vocalizations or loud exhalations, known as “chuffing”
    • Prolonged diving
    • Several individuals raising their heads simultaneously
    • Aggressive behavior
    • A mother leaving her pup
  • Whales, dolphins, and porpoises
    • Changes in swimming, such as rapid change in speed or direction
    • Escape tactics such as prolonged diving or underwater exhalation, which is evident in the appearance of bubbles at the surface
    • Surface displays like tail slapping
    • A female attempting to shield a calf with her body or her movements
  • Sea turtles
    • Rapid retreat into the water by a resting turtle on land
    • Changes in swimming, such as rapid change in speed or direction
    • Abandonment of a nesting attempt by a female turtle
    • Change in direction of hatchling turtles on land, such as moving towards a light or a distraction instead of towards the water
  • Sharks
    • Arched back
    • Downturned pectoral fins

It’s important to note that animals do not always exhibit a change in behavior when they are distressed. For example, some animals may freeze when they feel threatened. You should also limit time spent observing a group of animals or an individual animal to 30 minutes or less. When in doubt, assume that you are too close for comfort and take a few generous steps away from wildlife.

Sources: NOAA Fisheries: Viewing Marine Life, NOAA Fisheries: Marine Life Viewing Guidelines, WW Handbook (birds), Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary/A review of shark agnostic displays (sharks)

If you believe that an animal may be sick, the most important thing to remember is to stay as far away as possible. Sick animals can act unpredictably and can transmit diseases to humans and pets. Some easy-to-recognize signs of disease in wildlife include the following:

  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Loss of fear of humans or unprovoked aggression towards humans
  • Uncoordinated movements or difficulty flying and walking
  • Repetitive movements
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Excessive discharge from eyes, nose, or blowhole
  • Observable wounds

If an animal exhibits any of these signs, it’s safe to assume that it may be sick, and you should contact wildlife experts to let them handle the situation.

If you believe that an animal is dead or in need of help, report it here immediately. You can also report a stranded animal using the Dolphin and Whale 911 app, which is available for both Apple and Android devices.

Remember that the best thing you can do to help in these situations is to keep your distance and leave it to the experts. Sick or dead wildlife can potentially transmit diseases to you or your pets, and approaching the animal may cause it further distress.

Many young animals spend time alone, so a solitary animal is not necessarily abandoned. Signs of abandonment also vary from species to species. If you observe the animal for an extended period of time and believe that it may be abandoned or distressed, err on the side of caution and report it to wildlife experts here.

If you’re looking to photograph or observe certain species, make sure to do your research ahead of time! Some animals are only present or active during specific times of the year. Check out this calendar to see what kinds of amazing natural events are occurring and which species are out and about in your sanctuary throughout the year.

There are many ways for you to help wildlife beyond following wildlife viewing guidelines! You can volunteer nationwide in events like beach cleanups, which help to reduce the risk of animals ingesting or becoming entangled in trash. Check your sanctuary’s website to see what kinds of opportunities are available.

There are also many opportunities to participate in citizen science projects in national marine sanctuaries. In these projects, volunteers act as citizen scientists and partner with researchers to answer real-world questions. Citizen scientists may help to identify research questions, collect data in the field, and develop new technologies, all of which help to advance wildlife conservation. Many of these projects are open to wildlife lovers of all ages, so even children can participate and learn about science and stewardship!