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 fish in Hawai‘i, know and follow local fishing rules and regulations. Practice pono fishing (traditional, sustainable fishing practices). Examples of pono fishing include:

  • Don’t take the male (blue) parrotfish (uhu); females in his harem won’t spawn for a year until the largest female turns into a male.
  • Learn to tell when fish are ready to spawn. Take fish when they are not spawning. Spawning cycles vary by species and by location.
  • Minimize take of herbivores.
  • Improve your skills.

When cleaning fish at harbors or from a boat, do not feed turtles or monk seals directly or unintentionally. It can be harmful and illegal.

Do not release aquarium animals or plants into the ocean or stream. Doing so introduces alien animals, plants, and their parasites and diseases into our natural environment.

Sea Turtles

Hawksbill turtle. Photo by Brenna Bonene

Most of the turtles seen around Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau are green sea turtles. Their populations are increasing from years of decline in the 20th century, and they are still protected by federal and state laws. When green turtles are young, they are omnivorous. They change to a vegetarian diet when older. Green turtles are named after the color of their fat due to their herbivorous diet. In nearshore places where turtles are seen, avoid trampling on the seaweed that is their food by not stepping on rocks and other hard surfaces upon which the seaweed grows.

Don’t ride turtles or manipulate their movement.

With increasing frequency, turtles are coming ashore to bask, and Hawaiian monk seals come ashore to rest. They are not in distress and are not drying out. Do not cover them with sand or pour water on them. Keep voice levels down and do not surround them.

Some turtles have fibropapillomatosis, a tumor-causing disease.

Fishermen can help turtles by:

  • Removing fishing line from a hooked turtle. Cutting the loose line close to the hook will prevent the line from entangling the turtle.  The hook can remain intact and is expected to rust out and fall off.
  • Do not attempt to remove line that is embedded in the skin of a turtle.
  • Call the NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline if a turtle appears injured.
  • Adopt the use of barbless hooks to reduce injuries.
  • Clean your catch away from turtles and monk seals.

Avoid driving on the beach. Vehicles crush nests and create tire ruts that trap hatchlings and degrade habitats.

Hawaiian Monk Seal and Seabirds

Disturbing monk seals is prohibited by federal and state laws. Moms with pups are more aggressive. Stay at least 150 feet away and do not change their natural behaviors. Photo by Mimi Olry

Hawaiian monk seals are critically endangered. They are only found in the Hawaiian archipelago. The seals rest on sandy beaches or rocky shorelines when taking a break from diving and feeding. They also come ashore to give birth and use the beaches and nearby shallow waters during the nursing period. Annually, the seals molt, which is a normal process that involves a catastrophic replacement of old fur and skin with new fur and skin. They stay onshore during the molting period.

Any disturbance of monk seals will likely cause them to return to the ocean prematurely, making them vulnerable to shark attacks. A mom with pup is especially sensitive to disturbances and may attack humans nearby if she feels threatened. She may even abandon the pup if she is disturbed. For a critically endangered species, each one is important to their recovery.

Hawai‘i leash laws require all dogs to be leashed. Do not allow your dog to run unleashed because disturbances to wildlife can happen before the owner is able to react. Monk seals have been attacked by dogs. Entire wedge-tailed shearwater colonies and Laysan albatross nests have been decimated by unleashed dogs. Both seabird species are ground-nesting seabirds — shearwaters form burrows and albatrosses build nests on the ground. Dogs are susceptible to diseases carried by wildlife.

Kaua‘i has a higher proportion of ground-nesting seabirds than the other islands because of the lack of an established population of mongooses. This makes our seabirds and their nests more vulnerable to disturbance and destruction. Keep cats indoors, or allow controlled outdoor access (enclosed patio, harness/leash), for wildlife safety as well as their own.

Humpback Whales

The Hawaiian Archipelago provides important breeding, calving, and nursery habitat for the humpback whales in the North Pacific during the winter and spring months. It is illegal to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards. This applies if you are in a canoe, kayak, boat, surfboard, kite surfing, diving or swimming, flying a drone, or by any other means. It is also illegal to anticipate where the whale will be going and place yourself in its path so it approaches within 100 yards. Listening to them underwater using a hydrophone (underwater microphone) is acceptable, but do not play whale noises or whale songs to the whale to trigger a reaction. Do not surround a humpback whale; don’t try to touch them or swim with them.


Spinner dolphins rest in bays close to shore and nurse their young during the day after hunting for fish and other prey in the open ocean at night. Resting dolphins still swim and are easily disturbed, so do not approach or attempt to swim with them. They appear to be smiling and happy, but that may not be a true indication of their situation. Getting them to swim with you or bow ride by steering your boat toward them in a bay during the day is akin to having someone loudly disturbing you when you are sleeping.


Disturbing monk seals is prohibited by federal and state laws. Moms with pups are more aggressive. Stay at least 150 feet away and do not change their natural behaviors. Photo by Mimi Olry

Undeniably, Hawaii’s marine wildlife are cute, charismatic and attractive. Encounters with them can be awe-inspiring and life-affirming for us humans. More of us now want to memorialize these encounters with photos and videos to share with others, but it must be done in a way that does not disturb their natural behavior.

We need to be reminded that we are all guests in their world. And we humans must acknowledge that we have the capacity, whether intentionally or not, to alter their natural behavior, jeopardize their lives, and destroy their habitats.

If an animal is looking at you, you are too close. Back up. And keep your voice levels down. Here are recommended viewing distances for wildlife:

  • Sea turtles: At least 10 feet (3 meters) away on land and in water.
  • Hawaiian monk seals: At least 50 feet (15 meters) away on land or in water. View mom and pup seals from at least 150 feet (45 meters) away.
  • Dolphins: At least 150 feet (45 meters) away
  • Humpback whales: At least 100 yards (300 feet; 90 meters) away
  • Nesting seabirds: At least 15 feet (5 meters) away

When boating, post a watch to look out for marine wildlife to prevent boat strikes — a debilitating and often fatal encounter for the critters and injurious for humans.

When photographing, pay attention to your flash, which is disturbing to wildlife. No flash photos without a red filter or red film over the flash.

Report Hawai‘i marine wildlife emergencies or enforcement issues to the statewide NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840.

Report injured or downed seabirds to Save Our Shearwaters on Kaua‘i at (808) 635-5117.

  • Jean Souza serves as the on-site manager of Kaua‘i Ocean Discovery at Kukui Grove Center and is a Program Specialist with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. She can be contacted at


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