Boating Responsibly Around Marine Wildlife
Going boating isn’t just going with people. You’re also sharing the water with a plethora of marine wildlife, and being a responsible boater includes helping make sure aquatic life stays safe.
Observing and interacting with marine wildlife is one of the best parts of going boating, but we should always do our part to not disturb or endanger that wildlife. With that in mind, here are some tips for boating around marine wildlife responsibly.
Know the Local Marine Wildlife Protection Laws
Before you set sail, it’s important to know the laws for boating near, interacting with and staying away from marine wildlife. Every state has laws you need to know. For example, in Florida it’s illegal to touch manatees. Become familiar with the laws regarding which species of marine wildlife you’ll encounter, as well as local fishing laws and limitations. Don’t go boating until you know what you and your passengers are allowed to do and not do when encountering marine wildlife.
Boating Near Marine Wildlife
Whether in freshwater or saltwater, close encounters with wildlife such as dolphins, manatees, turtles, sharks and even alligators is quite the thrill. However, before you go boating, do your research on what types of marine wildlife inhabits the local waterways. This includes learning about behavioral habits such as feeding and nesting, to help you and your passengers boat responsibly.
Use online maps and a depth finder or fish finder to identify seagrass beds and coral reefs. Also, find out ahead of time if there are any protected habitats in the area you’ll be navigating. Keep a lookout for marine wildlife by using binoculars, and pay attention to signs on the waterways that warn of nearby protected habitats such as bird nesting sanctuaries and manatee zones.
If you come across any of these habitats, slow your boat down (look for minimum wake zone waterway signs) and reduce engine noises to avoid disturbing them. Keep in mind that failure to comply with waterway signs can lead to hefty fines.
Interacting with Marine Wildlife While Boating
See a dolphin or a manatee? Don’t try to play with it. Is there an alligator in your path? Don’t poke it with a paddle. In other words, don’t touch the wildlife, including birds. Keep your boat at least 300 feet away from all marine wildlife if possible. This is especially important for endangered marine creatures like certain species of whales, and some regional laws require keeping a further distance away than 300 feet.
Maintain your viewing time of marine wildlife limited. Keep in mind there may be other boats trying to observe the same animal, and you don’t want to crowd the creature or worse yet, trap it between boats and the shore. Get your observation and photographs in as quickly as possible and then move along.
What about if a marine mammal approaches your boat? In that case, reduce your speed and put the engine in neutral to prevent striking the animal with your boat or a propeller. Let the animal satisfy its curiosity without touching it, and wait until it loses interest and moves along before firing up your engine again.
Never try to chase marine wildlife. You never know when or where a mammal such as a dolphin, whale or manatee is going to surface, so keep your distance and don’t pursue it. Maintain a consistent speed and path to give aquatic wildlife a chance to react accordingly if they feel threatened by your boat.
Avoid Anchoring on Marine Wildlife Habitats
Once again, knowing what habitats you may encounter is important, and so is avoiding them both while navigating and during stops. In other words, don’t anchor on a habitat like a reef, which can seriously damage corals home to a variety of sea creatures.
Use nautical charts to identify underwater areas that serve as habitats for aquatic life, including coral reefs, as well as seagrass and oyster beds. Check the bottom for habitats before dropping anchor, and use a mooring ball if you have one. Turn off your boat’s engine in shallow water, and avoid starting it above grass beds or reefs, which can damage both the habitat and your boat.
Don’t Feed Marine Wildlife
Never throw scraps at marine wildlife, especially “human food,” which can be harmful if it’s unsuitable to an animal’s diet. Got a seabird on your boat? Don’t feed it bread, fishing scraps or anything else.
Feeding marine wildlife affects their behavior, and animals can lose their instinct to hunt or forage for themselves if they keep getting handouts. For example, in Florida, it’s illegal to feed alligators. This is because not only could they stop hunting for themselves when they’re fed, but they also lose their fear of humans and then see a meal anytime they see people, which can lead to aggressive behavior.
Other Ways to Boat Safely Around Marine Wildlife
Besides everything already mentioned, there are other ways to help protect marine wildlife. For starters, don’t litter the waterways. Trash pollutes waterways and endangers both animals and the vegetation they live in. We don’t need to go on about sea turtles getting caught in plastic rings or seabirds getting tangled in fishing line. You know better. Be responsible and dispose of your waste properly.
Another way to help protect marine wildlife is by designating a spotter on board. Assign someone to keep an eye out for manatees, dolphins, turtles, etc., as well as to spot slow speed and wake signs.
Responsible fuel management is yet another way to help protect marine wildlife. When refueling your boat, avoid spilling fuel in the water, and have a spill kit readily available for a cleanup. And even if you have a spill kit, report any fuel spills. Don’t try to cover it up, as the Environmental Protection Agency requires you to report all fuel spills, and failing to do so comes with serious penalties.
When fishing, use barbless single hooks if you’re doing catch-and-release, and clean up any and all fishing equipment, especially stray hooks and fishing lines.
How to Help Injured Marine Wildlife
If you see wildlife that’s sick, stranded, injured or tangled up, don’t touch the animal or try to rescue it yourself. Let the local authorities do their jobs, as trying to help distressed wildlife can further endanger them. Call the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16, or the local wildlife rescue or fish-and-game authorities.
Boat and propeller strikes are a common cause of marine wildlife injuries. Dolphins, whales, manatees, sea turtles and any other animals that surface for air are particularly vulnerable to getting struck and injured by boats. These injuries include cracked shells on turtles, and amputation of limbs or fins that can lead to flotation problems. If you have a collision with a large marine mammal, call it in and wait for help to arrive.
Protecting marine environments and the wildlife that inhabits them is everybody’s responsibility while boating. Please do your part to ensure safe boating for everybody out on the water.