DeFINitely Hot: Social Distancing around Wildlife


With people being locked away for some time to flatten the curve and getting a global pandemic under control, wildlife took its chance to gain a closer look and explored urban backyards. Goats, deer and even monkeys were seen in previously busy streets, and marine life came closer to shore, as sightings confirmed dolphins in Sicily and close to my own home in Auckland as well as orcas and humpback whales in Wellington harbour. Those encounters are great to let out your inner wildlife watcher. Watching wild animals from a distance is the best you can do because you won’t disrupt natural behaviour and you’re able to see this without any human influence. So chances are you’re able to see socialising behaviour of dolphins which even may include several leaps, as seen on the final day of Level 4 lockdown here in NZ. You may come across seals because they may have chosen a formerly busy beach as a resting place and now with surfing, swimming and kayaking being allowed under Level 3, you may be in for some amazing but unexpected encounters when you’re out and about.

Yet you need to know about some rules when wildlife gets a little bit closer to us than usual. In NZ, marine wildlife is protected. This is because NZ sees wildlife as Taonga, a national treasure. Moreover, numerous species and/or populations are threatened and therefore need more space than others. Marine mammals, which include whales and dolphins as well as seals on our coasts, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act issued by the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai. This regulation means that you are obliged to give marine mammals space (this can be at least 20m!) and to refrain from any other behaviour that may cause disturbance. This means, for example, if you are in a kayak and dolphins show up, let them come to you. Don’t chase or harass wildlife! Chances are that they feel annoyed and will leave. Same applies when you’re on a beach, and you see animals close to shore. Don’t go into the water to swim with marine life! Yes, this is tempting to many but remember that dolphins, seals or sharks are wild animals that can be harmful. Instead, watch them from a distance (would you leave your safari vehicle for that lion, too?).

Further, if dolphin pods contain little ones, you mustn’t swim with them. It’s the law. Even licensed operators must stick to those rules, and therefore they apply to you, too. Same for whales (e.g. humpbacks, right whales) and orcas. No swim, only watch.

This cannot be emphasised enough because the reality is that many people apparently do not know about these rules. Yet it is crucial to be respectful towards local wildlife and to refrain from close approaches for selfies or your TikTok videos. If you distribute content that clearly shows wildlife harassment, you could be in for a severe fine or even jail time. Think twice if that’s worth it (as well as the shit storm you’ll cause online because luckily many people are very responsible and will call you out!).

To say it with PM Jacinda Arderns words: Don’t be an idiot.

Stop. Watch. Appreciate. You’re fortunate to be in a position to experience wildlife without paying a penny. Spread the word and let other people know about the regulations that are in place as this message needs to reach as many people as possible.



For the most relevant information follow the links provided by the Department of Conservation:

Simple Rules for interacting with Marine Mammals

Simple Rules for Boaties to interact with Marine Mammals