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United States of America

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Extent of whale and dolphin watching

There are multiple opportunities to view marine animals in their natural habitat around the United States throughout the year depending on the species and locations.  All species of marine mammals are protected in U.S. waters under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), and several species are afforded additional protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) if their populations are listed as “threatened” or “endangered.” There are policies, guidelines or regulations that prescribe how to view the animals from a safe and respectful distance for their safety—and yours. Learning how to interact with and observe ocean animals can help you make the right decisions when you encounter them by water, land, or air in U.S. territorial waters.

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Target species, peak times of year and locations:

 

Species

Ocean most likely to  observe

Region

Platform

Peak time of year to observe

Large Cetaceans

Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus)

Pacific

Southwest

motorized boat

Summer

Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni)

Atlantic

Pacific

Gulf of Mexico

Northeast

Southwest

motorized boat

Summer

Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus)

Atlantic

Pacific

Northeast

Alaska

Northwest

Southwest

motorized boat

Summer

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus)

Pacific

Alaska

Northwest

Southwest

motorized boat

shore-based

Spring (Northwest, Southwest)

Summer (Alaska)

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Atlantic

Pacific

Northeast

Southeast

Alaska

Northwest

Southwest

Hawaii

motorized boat

shore-based

Summer (Northeast, Alaska, Northwest, Southwest)

Winter & Spring (Southeast, Hawaii)

Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

Atlantic

Pacific

Northeast

Southwest

Northwest

motorized boat

Summer

North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis)

Atlantic

Northeast

Southeast

motorized boat

shore-based

Summer (Northeast)

Winter (Southeast)

Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)

Atlantic

Pacific

Northeast

Southeast

motorized boat

Summer

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

Atlantic

Pacific

Gulf of Mexico

Northeast

Alaska

Northwest

Southwest

motorized boat

Summer

Small cetaceans

Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis)

Atlantic

Gulf of Mexico

Southeast

motorized boat

Year round

Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus)

Atlantic

Northeast

motorized boat

Summer

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Atlantic

Gulf of Mexico

Pacific

Northeast

Southeast

Southwest

Hawaii

motorized boat

shore-based

Summer (Northeast)

Year-round (Southeast, Southwest, Hawaii)

Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis)

Atlantic

Pacific

Northeast

Southwest

motorized boat

Year-round

False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens)

Atlantic

Gulf of Mexico

Pacific

Northeast

Southeast

Southwest

Hawaii

motorized boat

Summer (Northeast, Southwest)

Year round (Southeast, Hawaii)

Harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Atlantic

Pacific

Northeast

Alaska

Northwest

Southwest

motorized boat

shore-based

Summer

Year round (Northwest & Southwest)

Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris)

Pacific

Hawaii

motorized boat

shore-based

Year round

Killer whales (Orcinus Orca)

Atlantic

Gulf of Mexico

Pacific

Northeast

Alaska

Northwest

Southwest

Hawaii

motorized boat

shore-based

Summer

Rare (Hawaii)

Year-Round (Northwest)

Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens)

Pacific

Alaska

Northwest

Southwest

motorized boat

Summer

Pilot whales (Globicephala melas or Globicephala macrorhynchus)

 

Atlantic

Gulf of Mexico

Pacific

Northeast

Southeast

Hawaii

motorized boat

Year-round

 

Additional information about whale watching opportunities in the United States can be found on the following websites:

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Regulations and Guidelines 

 In the U.S., various policies, guidelines, and regulations have been developed with specific recommendations and distances for viewing whales, dolphins, and porpoises. These guidelines and laws can vary by species and geographic area, so please familiarize yourself with the local requirements before you seek out the animals1.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations, it is illegal to feed, attempt to feed, or harass marine mammals in the wild. These activities are illegal because they harm the animals in the following ways:

  • Marine mammals associate people with food, losing their natural wariness of humans or boats and becoming conditioned to receiving handouts.
  • Marine mammals change their natural behaviors, including feeding and migration activities, and show decreased willingness to forage for food on their own. They may also begin to take bait/catch from fishing gear. These changed behaviors may be passed on to their young and other members of their social groups, increasing their risk of injury from boats, entanglement in fishing gear, and intentional harm by people frustrated with the behavioral changes.
  • Marine mammals may eat contaminated (old or spoiled) food or non-food items. Feeding marine mammals inappropriate food, non-food items, or contaminated food jeopardizes their health.
  • Long term effects from prolonged or acute behavioral harassment include shifts in habitat or habitat abandonment, reduced calf survival and reproduction, and overall, population decline.   
  • Marine mammals sometimes become aggressive when seeking food and are known to bite or injure people when teased or expecting food.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries supports responsible viewing of marine mammals in the wild. Each of our five regional offices have developed viewing guidelines or regulations tailored to the specific needs of the species in their area to help people responsibly view the animals and avoid harassment. In general, the guidelines recommend the following:

  •  Observe wild dolphins, porpoises, and seals from a safe distance of at least 50 yards (150 feet) by land or sea.
  • Avoid touching or swimming with wild marine mammals, even if they approach you.
  • Observe large whales from a safe distance of at least 100 yards (300 feet) by land or sea.
  • Observe whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals from a safe distance of at least 333 yards (1,000 feet) by air.
  • Use binoculars or telephoto lenses for a better view of the animals.
  •   Limit overall viewing time to individuals or groups of animals to no more than 30 minutes.
  •   Avoid circling or entrapping marine mammals between watercraft or between watercraft and shore.
  •  Avoid approaching marine mammals when another watercraft is near.
  • Avoid abrupt movements or loud noises around marine mammals.
  •  Avoid separating mother/calf pairs.
  •  Move away cautiously if you observe behaviors that indicate the animal is stressed.

In addition to these recommended guidelines, federal regulations strictly prohibit closely approaching certain species of marine mammals and feeding or attempting to feed any species of marine mammal:

  •  It is illegal to feed or attempt to feed any species of marine mammal.
  • It is illegal to approach North Atlantic right whales within 500 yards (1,500 feet) by land, sea, or air.
  •  It is illegal to approach humpback whales in Hawaii and Alaska within 100 yards (300 feet) by land or sea.
  • It is illegal to approach humpback whales in Hawaii within 333 yards (1,000 feet) by air.
  • It is illegal to approach killer whales in inland waters of Washington State within 200 yards (600 feet) by land or sea.

To help prevent harassment of the animals, NOAA Fisheries has a policy on human interactions with wild marine mammals that states:

  •  Interacting with wild marine mammals should not be attempted, and viewing marine mammals must be conducted in a manner that does not harass (i.e., disturb or injure) the animals.
  • NOAA Fisheries does not support, condone, approve, or authorize activities that involve closely approaching, interacting, or attempting to interact with whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, or sea lions in the wild. This includes attempting to swim with, pet, touch, or elicit a reaction from the animals.

To learn more, visit our Viewing Guidelines and Distances page, as well as in the U.S. Code of  Federal Regulations at 50 CFR 216.3 and 50 CFR 224.103. Further information can be found on our Marine Life Viewing Guidelines website


1 The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act do not provide for permits or other authorizations to commercially or recreationally view marine mammals in the wild, except for specific listed purposes such as scientific research. As good stewardship policy,  interacting with wild marine life outside of bona fide permitted scientific research should not be attempted, and viewing marine mammals should be conducted in a manner that does not “harass” (i.e., disturb or injure) the animals.

 

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Research on whale watching in the United States

Many studies have been conducted on whale watching in different locations throughout the United States over the years. They are too numerous to summarize here, but more information can be found in other parts of this handbook, including the table summarizing the potential impacts of whale watching on cetaceans.  The following list of published journal articles and reports represents studies that have been conducted by NOAA scientists or funded by NOAA.

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