NOAA 03-R145
Contact: Connie Barclay
NOAA News Releases 2003
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NOAA Public Affairs


Labor Day weekend is historically one of the busiest tourist weekends of the summer season, and it is important that people visiting local beaches or boating on local waterways remember to be extremely cautious around wild dolphins and other marine mammals. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) reminds everyone that it is against federal law to feed or harass wild marine mammals, because it is harmful to the animals and dangerous to people. NOAA is an agency of the Department of Commerce.

“People tend to forget that marine mammals are just like other wild animals and can be aggressive,” said Bill Hogarth, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “One of the best ways that people can help protect the health and welfare of wild marine mammals is to observe the animals at a respectful distance, at least 50 yards for small whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions and 100 yards for large whales, and to resist swimming with or feeding them.”

NOAA Fisheries has received reports of people being bitten, pulled under water or seriously injured while trying to closely approach, feed, swim with, touch or interact with wild marine mammals. Swimmers have also been attacked by sharks while swimming with wild marine mammals, most recently in California and Hawaii.

For more than a decade, NOAA Fisheries has worked to educate the public about the harmful consequences of close interactions with wild marine mammals.

These efforts have focused on the harm that human interactions can cause to the animals, including boat strikes, disturbance of vital behaviors and social groups, separation of mothers from young, abandonment of resting areas, vandalism and habituation to humans.

NOAA Fisheries has worked to highlight these activities as a public safety concern in response to numerous reports of people being injured during encounters with wild marine mammals.

“NOAA Fisheries recognizes that viewing marine mammals in their natural habitat can be a rewarding educational experience, that fosters public appreciation for the conservation of the animals,” Hogarth said. “In our effort we want to help people have a safe experience, as well as to protect these wonderful animals. NOAA Fisheries has developed recommended viewing guidelines for admiring wild marine mammals.”

NOAA Fisheries is also concerned that commercial “swim-with-dolphin” programs in the wild risk harassing the animals, as such programs seek out and interact with dolphins in a manner that has the potential to disturb the animals' behavioral patterns. Swim-with-dolphin activities in the Southeast and Hawaii are of additional concern because some are facilitated by illegal feeding, or take place in critical resting and sheltering areas for the animals.

An in-depth review conducted by NOAA Fisheries biologists, non-governmental marine mammal experts, and the Marine Mammal Commission, determined that feeding and otherwise closely interacting with marine mammals in the wild alters their natural behavior in ways that place them at increased risk of injury and death. Repeated exposure to humans and human activities has been correlated with placing these animals at greater risk of incidental interactions with vessels and fishing activities, vandalism, and ingestion of inappropriate or contaminated food items. In addition, feeding may impact their ability or willingness to forage for food, which is of particular concern for young animals who need to learn foraging skills.

“The bottom line is that swimming with, or otherwise interacting with wild marine mammals is dangerous and can be illegal, “ Hogarth said.

NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation’s living marine resources, and the habitat on which they depend, through scientific research, management and enforcement. Our stewardship of these resources benefits the nation by supporting coastal communities that depend upon them, while helping to provide safe and healthy seafood to consumers and recreational opportunities for the American public.

On the Web:

NOAA Fisheries:

For additional information and guidelines for viewing marine mammals in the wild: