Marine mammals: How to safely interact with seals, dolphins and whales

Department of Conservation —  19/12/2022

Here in New Zealand, our marine mammals are a cut above the rest…
…and we’re not even being biased. Almost half of the world’s cetaceans — whales, porpoises and dolphins — have been reported in our waters.

Plus, many of the species are found nowhere else in the world, including endemic Hector’s dolphins and New Zealand sea lions, found only in the south.

Because our marine mammals are so unique, we have a big job (both Kiwis and visitors) to protect them and consider the law when doing so (i.e. the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978). It is an offence under the Act to disturb, harass, harm, injure or kill a seal.

As an individual, knowing what you can and can’t do when interacting with our marine mammals could be the difference between harming protected wildlife (or yourself) or enjoying Aotearoa for our precious environment.

Take a ‘hands off’ approach.

We get a lot of requests every summer from members of the public requesting we step in or how they can help seals that appear to be injured.

Your instinct may be to help, however seals aren’t puppies. Never attempt to touch a seal, no matter how cute they may look. Just like us humans, seals need breathing space, and they heal naturally in their own time.

However, there are exceptions. DOC will intervene when the seal is:

• In a notably poor condition
• In immediate danger
• Tangled in debris
• Being harassed (by people or by dogs)
• Causing disruption, e.g. seals can find their way onto busy roads (and they’re quite stubborn when it comes to traffic)

There are no marine mammal rehabilitation facilities in New Zealand and intervention may involve putting the animal down if they are deemed unlikely to survive on their own. We will often consult with veterinary professionals.  

Call our emergency hotline on 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) should you need to report a disturbed or injured seal.

Most of the time, the ‘hands off’ approach applies, especially to behaviours that may seem out of the ordinary but are totally fine for our seal friends, such as sneezing, coughing, flapping flippers, fighting, or pups aren’t with their mothers.

Photo: Sabine Bernert

Human food is not seal food.

If feeding or attempting to feed marine mammals, you put yourself and the animal at risk.

Ultimately, feeding human food to native wildlife alters their behaviour, interferes with their ability to hunt, and puts the marine mammal at greater risk around people and boats as they become conditioned to beg for handouts instead of foraging for their normal prey.

Even if a seal ‘appears’ hungry on shore, save your snacks for humans only.

Fur seal | Photo: Sabine Bernert

Respect marine mammals at sea.

Boating or visiting the coast this summer? If you’re lucky enough to see one of our marine mammals, it’s important to stay back and give them space.

At sea, ensure you travel no faster than idle or ‘no wake’ speed within 300m of whales, dolphins and seals. Only three vessels at a time may be within the 300m.

Be smart about how you interact. Approach from a direction that is parallel and do not circle the marine mammals, obstruct their path or cut through any groups.

Image showing different species and the rules about approaching them.
Infographic – Interacting with marine mammals | Photo: DOC

You may encounter wildlife when out swimming this summer, it’s important for your safety – and that of the marine mammals – to follow the rules: do not swim with whales, do not swim with dolphin pods containing juveniles, and stay at least 5m away from the water’s edge where seals are present.

When you respect wildlife, we can share our coasts in harmony and protect our precious environment from any harm.

The wildlife matters more than your selfie.

Feeding, breeding and birth rates.

That’s what you’re impacting for our native species when you favour the selfie over the animal.

In a recent report from World Animal Protection, researchers discovered a 292% increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram between 2014 and 2017. And of these images, 40% were deemed inappropriate; the wild animal was at risk by being held, hugged or harassed by a human.

In New Zealand, it’s our endangered fur seals that suffer at the hands of the selfie taker.

We’re spreading the message over summer (and all year round!) that seals and sea lions need their distance.

When it doubt, remember at least twenty metres, the length of two buses.If you are too close, they may panic and stampede – and hurt themselves in the process.

Although they look lazy and cute when on land, some may become aggressive – and rightly so – when humans block their escape route to sea or are near their babies. They move quickly and they have a nasty bite.Their resting time on land is important, so try not to disturb them.

Stay at least 20m away when photographing marine mammals | Photo: Sabine Bernert

Control your doggos.

Dogs are not only a threat to our flightless native birds, but also coastal wildlife such as fur seals, penguins and seabirds. Even the best-trained dog has the potential to harass or kill wildlife – especially when it comes to a seal’s ability to rest – and in the process, they, too, could get hurt.

That’s why it’s really important to understand why dog owners need to control their furry friends on public conservation land.

Know before you go: If you’re planning to enjoy the great outdoors with your dog this summer, especially where marine mammals may be, first check that the location is an approved dog area.

Keep alert for wildlife near your dog: Even if the area is dog-approved, there is still the risk that your dog could come into contact with a wild animal. Always carry your lead and leash your dog when or where they could become a threat to wildlife.

Call your dog when you spot a marine mammal: New Zealand has a rich and diverse fauna of marine mammals – and it’s a team effort to protect many threatened species. By planning your trip, keeping alert for wildlife, and lastly, calling your dog when the risk is present, you’re also helping to save populations under threat.

Leave your drone at home.

Flying drones in the vicinity of marine mammals (such as whales, dolphins, and seals) can be highly disturbing. Even though an animal might not appear to be disturbed, it could be quite stressed. 

If you want to fly your drone closer than 150 m horizontally from a marine mammal, whether the purpose commercial or recreational, you must have a permit from DOC. When using your drone over scenic waters, you agree to not disturb or harass any wildlife (e.g. don’t chase, herd or scatter them with your drone). Loud or disturbing noises negatively impacts the behaviour patterns of seals, dolphins, and even sea birds.

Hector’s dolphins | Photo: Brian Sheppard, DOC

Love this place and the animals that we share it with. Giving wildlife their space, not feeding them or interrupting their natural behaviour helps protect New Zealand’s precious native species.

It’s important that visitors to public conservation land create minimal disturbance for the species who live there.

4 responses to Marine mammals: How to safely interact with seals, dolphins and whales

    Peter Hallinan 17/11/2022 at 12:38 pm

    Further to mistynites post, I’d love to see Kaikoura locals join me as volunteers for DOC’s Seal Watch program. I’m only available occasionally and it would be great to have regular patrols by local people at Point Kean. Like to know more? Email me at or try contacting Jemima Rodden at the Kaikoura DoC Base.

    Chantal Pagel 17/10/2022 at 7:12 pm

    Keeping your disance not only ensures the safety of wildlife, but yours as well. Many marine wildlife species we’re attracted to are specialised predators that can be a threat to human health and safety. With social media, this is sometimes hard to believe when content we scroll through displays close approaches, handling or other inappropriate interactions with wildlife.


    What’s your advice when you witness people breaking these rules? Last time I was at Kaikoura Peninsula I saw people posing with fur seal pups and clicking fingers right in their face for the ‘perfect’ selfie.

    Claudia Mason 14/12/2019 at 6:13 pm

    Good advice.When walking along Hokio Beach with a group , we came across a seal on the shore-line.Your advice is much appreciated, because it would seem they could appear at any beach in New Zealand