Dolphin watching from a boat.

Image: Ailie Suzuki, Dolphin Watch & Nature Tours. | ©


This is how to have an enjoyable and safe encounter with whales, dolphins or seals while boating or visiting the coast.

Rules around marine mammals


If you notice a marine mammal being harassed, severely injured or entangled, contact us immediately on 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).

  • Do not disturb, harass or make loud noises near marine mammals.
  • Contact should be ceased should marine mammals show any signs of becoming disturbed or alarmed.
  • Do not feed or throw any rubbish near marine mammals.
  • Avoid sudden or repeated changes in speed or direction of any vessel or aircraft near a marine mammal.
  • There should be no more than 3 vessels and/or aircraft within 300 m of any marine mammal.

On shore

  • Give seals and sea lions space. Where practicable stay at least 20 m away.
  • Avoid coming between fur seals and the sea.
  • Keep dogs on a leash and well away.
  • Where practicable, do not drive vehicles closer than 50 m of a marine mammal.
  • Never attempt to touch seals or sea lions – they can be aggressive and often carry diseases.

In the air

  • Aircraft should maintain a horizontal distance of greater than 150 m when flying near any marine mammal.
  • Avoid flying or imposing a shadow directly over a marine mammal either at sea or on shore.
  • Learn about flying drones near marine mammals

At sea

  • Ensure that you travel no faster than idle or ‘no wake’ speed within 300 m of any marine mammal.
  • Approach whales and dolphins from behind and to the side.
  • Do not circle them, obstruct their path or cut through any group.
  • Keep at least 50 m from whales (or 200 m from any large whale mother and calf or calves).
  • Swimming with whales is not permitted.
  • You may swim with seals and dolphins, but not with dolphin pods containing younger animals especially young calves. You can spot calves as they’re about half the size of an adult dolphin and often swimming close to their mothers. Some calves may still have foetal fold markings that are pale vertical lines on their sides.
  • Avoid approaching closer than 20 m to seals and sea lions hauled out on shore.
  • Idle slowly away. Speed may be gradually increased to out-distance dolphins and should not exceed 10 knots within 300 m of any dolphin.

Sharing the coast

As an island nation, with most Kiwis living within an hour of the coast, most of us will be fortunate enough at some stage to encounter marine mammals – whether seals or sea lions hauled out on shore, or dolphins and whales at sea.

From the tip of the north to the deep south, New Zealand is a hotspot for marine mammals. Dolphins mingle with the boaties in Auckland’s back yard, the Hauraki Gulf. Seals laze on the capital city’s southern coast, and even whales can be seen resting between dives above the Kaikoura canyon, the South Island’s marine mammal Mecca.

Hunting in the past reduced many marine mammal populations to a fraction of their former size. Nowadays, cameras have replaced harpoons and clubs and some marine mammal populations have been slowly recovering.

However, with growing public interest in marine mammals and the expansion in sea-based tourism there are new threats, including boat strike, noise pollution, harassment, displacement and separation of mothers and their young.

Marine mammal laws

The Marine Mammals Protection Regulations 1992 list the conditions governing behaviour around marine mammals. Commercial tourist operators require permits and are subject to further rules.

All seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978. It’s an offence to harass, disturb, injure or kill marine mammals.

Anyone charged with harassing, disturbing, injuring or killing a marine mammal faces a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment or a fine to maximum of $250,000.


Marine Conservation Unit
Department of Conservation

Back to top