Viewing and interacting with marine mammals in the wild attracts sufficient numbers of people. A small industry has grown from it. Well intentioned or not, this industry and the public it serves frequently do not take into account the well-being of the animals they view. Marine mammal specialists and advocates have sufficient cause to be concerned.
TYPES OF INTERACTION
Marine mammals in their natural habitat attract many tourists. Anyone who approaches a wild animal to touch, feed, or pose for photographs with it may be guilty of unintentional harassment. Sometimes the harassment is a matter of indifference, such as the many people on some parts of the west coast who frequently disregard posted signs and walk among elephant seals "hauled out" (who have hauled themselves out) on beaches.
Jet-skiing, kayaking, boating, and similar aquatic recreational activities may harass marine mammals in the wild by pursuing, annoying or tormenting them. Scuba or snorkel divers may find it "fun" to harass manatees by swimming around them or touching them, an example of intentional wildlife abuse by humans.
Many commercial tour operations regularly feed the wild animals to encourage them to approach their vessels, then offer tourists an opportunity to photograph, feed, pet or swim with marine mammals. Bottlenose dolphins in the southeast are the most affected animals in such activities.
RISK TO ANIMALS & HUMANS
These human interactions threaten the health and well-being of marine mammals. Possible consequences are driving them from their preferred habitat; disrupting their social groups; poisoning them with inappropriate food; and exposing them to fish hooks and boat propellers.
Wildlife fed by humans often become habituated to the free handout and, unwilling or unable to forage for food, develop the unnatural behavior of begging. This is crucial when young animals need to learn foraging skills.
Many people have been seriously injured when marine mammals who have become conditioned to being fed by humans have behaved aggressively toward them. Medical attention is usually required, and sometimes even hospitalization. Animals who behave aggressively in these situations are usually perceived as "nuisance animals," thus opening the door to animal "control" that may mean death to the animals.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) clearly sets forth the law in interactions with wild marine mammals. Interactions such as those mentioned above may constitute harassment and carry civil and criminal penalties, including fines as high as $20,000 and up to a year in jail. The MMPA defines harassment as "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, sheltering."
Many marine mammals are endangered or threatened. Human interaction may therefore also be a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
For the animals' sake, and for your safety, please don't feed, swim with, or harm marine mammals.
Share your knowledge with others. Encourage friends and family not to patronize boat operators and resorts that promote marine mammal encounter programs.
Ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to provide increased manpower and money to enforce the federal regulations prohibiting feeding and harassment of marine mammals. Write to: National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources; 1315 East-West Highway, 13th Floor; Silver Spring, MD, 20910.
To report a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, call: NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hot Line: 1-800-853-1964.
RESPONSIBLE MARINE MAMMAL VIEWING
The significant growth in whale-watching and other marine-mammal viewing increases the likelihood of a threat to the animals. The National Marine Fisheries Service has therefore set forth guidelines for land or water based viewing. If you choose recreational activities in the marine environment, please keep this "Code of Conduct" in mind:
Remain at least 100 yards from marine mammals. Binoculars will ensure that you view at a safe distance. If a whale approaches within 100 yards of your vessel, put your engine in neutral and allow the whale to pass.
Because many watchers on many vessels have a cumulative effect, limit your observing time to one hour. Avoid approaching the animals when another vessel is near.
Whales should not be encircled or trapped between boats, or boat and shore.
Offering food, discarded fish, or fish waste is prohibited.
Do not touch or swim with marine mammals. Never attempt to herd, chase or separate groups of marine mammals or females from their young.
If your engine is not running, whales may not recognize your location. To avoid collisions, make noise, such as tapping the side of the boat.
Do not handle pups. "Hauled out" seal or sea lion pups may appear abandoned when the mother is feeding. Leave them alone.
When viewing hauled out seals or sea lions, try not to let them see, smell or hear you.