NOAA 99-R157
Contact: Stephanie Dorezas


Over the ages, humans have held a high fascination with marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and manatees. Today, that level of interest remains strong, and has fostered a booming business of watching cruises, recreational boating excursions, and diving and swimming tours. However, there is growing concern that some viewing practices can be harmful to the animals. In response to these concerns, marine mammal experts from federal and state wildlife agencies, private research institutions, and ecotourism businesses will gather at the 1999 National Watchable Wildlife Conference (Oct. 19-21, 1999) to discuss responsible marine mammal viewing conduct, the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today.

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and the Florida Marine Research Institute will highlight their continued partnership to promote responsible viewing guidelines for marine mammals in the wild during the National Watchable Wildlife Conference at a one-day symposium entitled "Marine Mammals and Ecotourism: A mini-symposium to discuss appropriate guidelines for viewing marine mammals in the wild." The goal of this symposium will be to educate conference attendees about the problems of marine mammal disturbance and to help ecotourism operators develop conservation projects that support their business while protecting the safety of marine mammals. This symposium will take place on Thursday, Oct. 21, from 11:00 a.m. – 5:15 p.m.

"We are concerned that viewing marine mammals in the wild can be dangerous to both the animals and to people if not conducted properly and according to
established guidelines," said Trevor Spradlin, a marine mammal biologist in the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. "There are numerous examples of marine mammals being injured by boats when people get too close, or of animals being harmed when people try to feed them. In addition, there are several examples of people being injured by marine mammals when they frighten or attempt to touch or feed the animals."

Agency officials are concerned that the average citizen is unaware that feeding or harassing wild marine mammals is dangerous to both animals and humans and illegal under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Activities of concern include closely approaching, petting, teasing, feeding, or swimming-with marine mammals in the wild, such as whales, dolphins and seals, sea lions and manatees. People who engage in such interactions also risk their own safety, as well as violating laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act.

"The goal of this symposium is to promote safe and responsible viewing practices of wild marine mammals that the public and tour operators can follow when in the natural habitat of marine mammals, " said Gene Nitta, also with NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources. "Just as terrestrial wildlife officials and scientists have successfully taught proper conduct in the wilderness through messages like ‘Don't Feed the Bears', we hope to educate the public about the importance of respecting the needs of marine wildlife, and allowing wild marine mammals to stay wild."

"We encourage people to learn about wild marine mammals and observe them in their natural habitat, and we want to enhance, not interfere with, the public's appreciation of them," said Spradlin. "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 of at least 50 yards and to resist feeding them. Education will be the springboard for our efforts, and this symposium will provide a forum for information exchange among experts and businesses interested in marine mammals."

A field trip to Estero Bay to accompany a dolphin watch operation to view the local wild bottlenose dolphins is planned for immediately following the symposium. Media are encouraged to attend. Several marine mammal experts from various agencies or institutions will be available for interviews.