Be Whale Wise - Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers

Photo: a vessel getting too close to a whale.

Don't get too close! Vessel and acoustic disturbances can disrupt the basic life processes of killer whales.

Seeing killer whales and other marine wildlife in their natural environment can be a thrilling experience.  

In our excitement, we sometimes forget that our presence has an effect on wildlife and their habitat. Just like us, marine animals need space to find food, choose mates, raise young, socialize, and rest.

When we get too close, approach too fast, or make too much noise, we may be disrupting these activities and causing the animals unnecessary stress. In some cases, we may be threatening their lives. Follow these guidelines in the presence of marine wildlife.

Set an example for others and help protect our spectacular wildlife resources. 

Why do we need guidelines?

The diversity and complexity of marine life in the coastal waters off British Columbia and Washington is truly extraordinary.

It is a fragile world. Pollution, global climate change, and other impacts are taking their toll at all levels of the coastal food web. Many species of marine wildlife, such as the endangered southern resident killer whales (fish eaters), are showing signs of vulnerability.

Meanwhile, vessel traffic in our waters is steadily increasing, placing added pressures on marine animals and their habitats.

We need to minimize our impact. These guidelines are designed to help you enjoy your wildlife encounter, and reduce the risk of disturbing marine wildlife. 

Whale Watching


  1. BE CAUTIOUS and COURTEOUS: approach areas of known or suspected marine wildlife activity with extreme caution. Look in all directions before planning your approach or departure.
  2. SLOW DOWN: reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within 400 metres/yards of the nearest whale. Avoid abrupt course changes.
  3. KEEP CLEAR of the whales’ path. If whales are approaching you, cautiously move out of the way.
  4. DO NOT approach whales from the front or from behind. Always approach and depart whales from the side, moving in a direction parallel to the direction of the whales.
  5. DO NOT approach or position your vessel closer than 100 metres/yards to any whale.
  6. If your vessel is not in compliance with the 100 metres/yards approach guideline (#5), reduce your speed and cautiously move away from the whales
  7. STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when they are traveling close to shore.
  8. LIMIT your viewing time to a recommended maximum of 30 minutes. This will minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels and give consideration to other viewers.
  9. DO NOT swim with, touch or feed marine wildlife.

Bow and Stern-riding Porpoises and Dolphins

  1. DO NOT drive through groups of porpoises or dolphins to encourage bow or stern riding.
  2. Should dolphins or porpoises choose to ride the bow wave of your vessel, avoid sudden course changes. Hold course and speed or reduce speed gradually.

Seals, Sea Lions and Birds on Land

  1. BE CAUTIOUS AND QUIET when around haul-outs and bird colonies, especially during breeding, nesting and pupping seasons (generally May to September).
  2. REDUCE SPEED, minimize wake, wash and noise, and then slowly pass without stopping AVOID approaching closer than 100 metres/yards to any marine mammals or birds.
  3. PAY ATTENTION and move away, slowly and cautiously, at the first sign of disturbance or agitation.
  4. DO NOT disturb, move, feed or touch any marine wildlife, including seal pups. If you are concerned about a potentially sick or stranded animal, contact your local stranding network where available.

Marine Protected Areas, Wildlife Refuges, Ecological Reserves and Parks

  1. CHECK  your nautical charts for the location of various protected areas.
  2. ABIDE by posted restrictions or contact a local authority for further information.

To report a marine mammal disturbance or harassment:

  • Canada: Fisheries and Oceans Canada 1-800-465-4336  
  • US: NOAA Fisheries, Office for Law Enforcement 1-800-853-1964

To report marine mammal Sightings:

Be Whale Wise

The Be Whale Wise guidelines are a collaborative effort between Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Marine Fisheries Service, The Pacific Whale Watch Association (formerly Whale Watch Operators' Association Northwest) , and many other individuals and organizations.

Also see Be Whale Wise for Paddlers in Johnstone Strait (PDF)

Need more information?