Dolphin watching from a boat.


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

Anywhere you encounter a marine mammal, protect them from stress or displacement.

Make sure you:

  • do not disturb, harass or make loud noises near marine mammals
  • cease contact if marine mammals show signs of being disturbed or alarmed
  • do not feed or throw any rubbish near marine mammals.

Keep marine mammals and their young safe by following the right rules for the environment and species. This will make sure you and the animals have an enjoyable experience.

There may be more restrictions for specific areas like marine mammal sanctuaries.

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


When marine mammals are onshore:

  • give seals and sea lions space stay at least 20 m away if you can
  • avoid coming between fur seals and the sea
  • keep dogs on a leash and well away
  • do not drive vehicles closer than 50 m of a marine mammal if you can
  • never attempt to touch seals or sea lions – they can be aggressive and often carry diseases.

At sea

Image showing different species and the rules about approaching them.
Image: DOC | DOC

If you're travelling at sea near marine mammals:

  • travel no faster than idle or 'no wake' speed within 300 m
  • make sure there are no more than three vessels within 300 m, including any aircraft
  • approach from a direction that is parallel and slightly to the rear
  • do not circle the marine mammals, obstruct their path or cut through any groups
  • idle slowly away.

Whales including orca and pilot whales

For whales:

  • stay at least 50 m away from any whale
  • stay at least 200 m away from any baleen or sperm whale mother and calf
  • do not swim with whales.


For dolphins:

  • you may gradually increase speed to outdistance dolphins
  • do not exceed 10 knots until more than 300 m away
  • do not swim with dolphin pods containing juveniles. Juveniles are half the size or smaller of an adult.


For seals:

  • vessels need to stay at least 20 m away from the water’s edge where seals may be present.
  • swimmers need to stay at least 5 m away from the water’s edge.


For aircraft:

  • maintain a horizontal distance of greater than 150 m when flying near any marine mammal.
  • make sure there are no more than three vessels within 300 m, including any aircraft
  • avoid flying or imposing a shadow directly over a marine mammal either at sea or onshore.
  • drones have the same restrictions as aircraft. Drone rules near marine mammals.

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 a maximum of $250,000.


Marine Species Team
Department of Conservation

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