Watching marine wildlife

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Watching whales and other marine mammals in their natural surroundings gives Canadians an opportunity to better appreciate these beautiful animals, but when humans get too close to wildlife in their habitat, we risk disturbing and even harming marine wildlife.

Approaching marine mammals too quickly, coming too close or making too much noise can disturb, stress or even harm these wonderful creatures who call our waters home.

Infographic: If you see tail, fin or spray – Stay far enough away.

Infographic: If you see tail, fin or spray – Stay far enough away.

Marine mammals are wild animals that people may inadvertently come across while enjoying our oceans. In those cases we ask that you keep your distance, not only for their well-being, but for yours as well.

Disturbing marine mammals, including approaching or attempting to approach them, includes:

  • feeding, swimming or interacting with a marine mammal;
  • moving a marine mammal (or enticing/causing it to move);
  • separating a marine mammal from its group or going between it and a calf;
  • trapping a marine mammal or a group either between a vessel and the shore, or between a vessel and other vessels; or
  • tagging or marking a marine mammal.
Infographic: How far is 200 metres?

Infographic: How far is 100 metres?

Infographic: How far is 200 metres?

Infographic: How far is 200 metres?

Infographic: How far is 400 metres?

Infographic: How far is 400 metres?

Laws and regulations

Canada’s laws and regulations help to ensure our whales and marine mammals can still be enjoyed, but at a safe distance.

Species at Risk Act

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) is part of the Government’s commitment to keep Canadian wildlife species from becoming extinct and secure the necessary actions for their recovery. It provides for the legal protection of wildlife species and the conservation of their biological diversity.

Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act

Infographic: Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations.

Infographic: Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations.

All marine mammals are subject to the provisions of the Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act. The Government recently amended the Marine Mammal Regulations to provide greater protection for marine mammals including Canada’s at-risk whales.

Keeping a minimum distance is the law

The rules for whale watching and approaching marine mammals, which are now in effect, provide a minimum approach distance of 100 metres for most whales, dolphins and porpoises to legally protect these animals from human disturbances.

Additionally, the distance requirement will be greater for certain marine mammals, including killer whales in B.C. and the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga in Quebec, because of the threats they already face. There is no single approach distance that is appropriate for all species of marine mammals, vessel classes, seasons, nor for all situations. The minimum approach distances are based on the best available science.

Killer whales in B.C. and Pacific Ocean

A minimum approach distance of 200 metres applies for all killer whale populations in B.C. and the Pacific Ocean. In addition, a new 400 metres approach distance is mandatory for all killer whales in Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat. Exceptions may be authorized by the Minister of Transport.

Vessel operators will also be asked to turn off their echo sounders and turn engines to neutral idle, if safe to do so, when a whale is within 400 metres.

Narrow Churchill and Seal River areas

The Churchill and Seal River areas in Manitoba are frequented in the summer by large concentrations of beluga whales. Given the narrow geography of these areas, a 50 m minimum approach distance in parts of the Seal and Churchill River estuaries provides protection for the beluga whales and supports safe boating activities. A general minimum approach distance of 100 m for whales, dolphins and porpoises still applies for all other areas.

St. Lawrence estuary

Video: Approach distances for marine mammals in the St. Lawrence estuary.

Video: Approach distances for marine mammals in the St. Lawrence estuary.

An approach distance of 400 meters for whales, dolphins and porpoises species endangered or threatened under the Species at Risk Act, including beluga whales and blue whales.

  • For whales, dolphins and porpoises species that are neither endangered nor threatened, a general minimum approach distance of 100 meters applies.
  • In certain parts of the St. Lawrence Estuary (between Isle-aux-Grues and Baie-Comeau on the north side of the Estuary and Baie-des-Sables on the south side), the minimum distance to approach whales, dolphins and porpoises is 200 meters.

Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park

The Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park has its own regulations Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations that are aligned with the Marine Mammal Regulations. The park’s minimum approach distances have been in force since 2002.

Saguenay River

Approach distances in the Saguenay River include a minimum 400 metres for endangered or threatened whales, porpoises and dolphins (including belugas and blue whales). Outside the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park in the Saguenay River, a minimum approach distance of 100 metres for other whales, dolphins and porpoises also applies.

How to Avoid Disturbing Marine Mammals

Well-intentioned watchers may unknowingly disturb marine mammals. You can avoid being disruptive or threatening by using binoculars to watch safely and responsibly. If a whale approaches you in the water, we ask that you move away and keep your distance.

Be whale wise

While watching marine mammals, you should never:

  • feed them
  • swim, dive or interact with them
  • move, encircle them or entice them to move
  • change directions quickly or park your boat in their path
  • approach them when they’re resting
    • the whale will look like it’s not moving and will be floating at the surface or near the surface
  • separate a mammal from its group or go between it and a calf
  • trap a marine mammal or a group either between a vessel and the shore, or between a vessel and other vessels
  • approach them if there are already several boats present
  • approach head on or from behind, as this will cut off their movements
  • tag or mark them
  • touch, feed or disturb an animal, even if it comes up to a wharf or the shoreline
  • approach using aircraft

Porpoises and dolphins

If dolphins or porpoises ride the bow wave of your boat, avoid sudden course changes. Hold course and speed or reduce speed gradually. Do not drive through groups of porpoises or dolphins.

Seals and sea lions

When you encounter seals or sea lions:

  • reduce boat speed, minimize wake, wash and noise, and then slowly pass without stopping
    • ‘wake’ is the disturbed water caused by the motion of a boat’s hull passing through the water
    • ‘wash’ is the disturbed water caused by the propeller or jet drive
  • avoid sudden changes of speed or direction
  • move away slowly at the first sign of disturbance or agitation. If the animal starts to stare, fidget or dive into the water, you are too close

Haul-outs

Be cautious and quiet near haul-outs, especially during breeding and pupping seasons (generally May to September). Pupping season is when seals, sea lions and walrus give birth.

Beached seal pups

If you see a young seal that seems to be alone and in distress, keep your distance and your pets leashed, as its mother is probably nearby. Seals normally spend long hours out of the water resting and shouldn’t be disturbed.

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