Sighting & Observing Marine Wildlife

By Team

Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Maui. Photo: Peter Liu Photography.

The Pacific Ocean is alive with wildlife. Some of these animals, like humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles, are considered endangered species and are protected by federal laws. Dolphins and other whales, though not endangered, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Nature-based tourism is a fast growing segment of the market. There are scores of tour boat companies and water-based activities that cater to whale and dolphin watching.

dolphins on oahu

Dolphin Excursions, recommended by the website, kept their promise. We had an amazing snorkeling trip. – member Karen S.

Hawaii’s marine mammals are fascinating and easily observed creatures. During the winter humpback season, it’s common to see 40-ton whales with 15-foot pectoral fins breaching offshore, and resident spinner dolphins can be seen flashing through the surf any day. It’s common to come across sea turtles feeding near the shore. And occasionally a critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal, sometimes with a pup, will climb out onto a beach and come into view.

Sunbathing turtle. Photo: member Renee J.

Most commercial operators abide by federal laws intended to protect Hawaii’s marine mammals and sea turtles from harassment, injury and death. The average visitor may not be as well informed. Laws are enforced, illegal activities are prosecuted and fines are administered.

Rules and guidelines to follow when viewing marine wildlife:

• View marine wildlife from a distance. Consider binoculars.

• Stay at least 100 yards from humpback whales, 50 yards from dolphins, monk seals and sea turtles.

• It is not illegal for an animal to approach you, but it is against the law to approach, chase, surround, touch or swim with marine mammals.

• If approached by a marine mammal or turtle, put the engine in neutral and allow the animal to pass.

• Do not harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal.

• Limit observation time to 30 minutes.

• Avoid approaching whales or dolphins if another vessel is in the area.

• Feeding marine mammals is prohibited under federal law.

• To report suspected violations, call the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

For more information, check with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Kihei (1-800-831-4888), the NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu (1-808-973-2937) or the Department of Land and Natural Resources in Honolulu (1-808-587-5404).

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