By Jean Souza

A humpback whale calf is seen here. Federal and state laws require people to stay at least 100 yards away from humpback whales. Photo by Ed Lyman/HIHWNMS taken under federal permit

Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau are within the home range of some really special marine critters. Sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, dolphins and humpback whales are among the most notable and beloved. This means that chances of seeing them are high for an average person cruising along the shoreline.

For some people, the privilege of viewing them from afar has not been enough, and they take the opportunity to touch them, ride them, feed them, and otherwise disturb their natural behaviors. This type of behavior is not only disrespectful and harmful to our marine wildlife, but it can also be a violation of state and federal laws.

In the home territory of these critters, we need to put their interests above our own individual interests. We need to tamp down the misguided, potentially dangerous drive to take that close-up selfie, to fulfill a dream of riding a sea turtle, of swimming with dolphins, of slapping a snoozing monk seal while the camera is rolling.

“Close encounters with sea turtles, monk seals, dolphins, and whales can disrupt important behaviors that are needed to survive,” says Adam Kurtz, a marine wildlife management coordinator for the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office. “It is illegal to harass or harm these protected marine species, so if you see them on the beach or in the ocean, do not approach or do anything that will change their behavior.”

Respect is key. Here are some dos and don’ts around protected marine wildlife in Hawai‘i, and some background about these critters that have shaped these ocean etiquettes practices. Please do your part.

Look, Never Touch

Wonderlust Newsletter recently published these cautions, which are appropriate for us also:

“Regardless of which sea activities you choose, never touch any sea life. Ethical tourism means you observe sea creatures in their natural habitat and avoid intervening. For instance, never feed, touch, or bait wildlife on your next vacation, even if the marine species seems harmless.”

Fish and Corals

Humans feeding fish habituates them to humans, disrupts their natural feeding and alters their densities and their population structures. Feeding fish also has a detrimental effect on the surrounding marine life and water quality.

Fish have a thin mucous coating around their bodies that protect them. Touching them disturbs or removes the coating, leading to increased susceptibility to bacteria and viruses.

During the daytime, corals look like plain rocks. They primarily feed at night, so during the day, they look drab and dead. They are alive, so do not stand on, touch, or trample corals.

If you fis