Observer Guidelines

Observing marine mammals and sea turtles in the wild is one of the great experiences a person can have in their lifetime. More than 30 species of marine mammals and five species of sea turtles have been recorded from Virginia waters, so there are many potential adventures in store for the willing observer.

These animals spend nearly all of their lives in the water and are masterful swimmers and divers, so observing them can be challenging. Because none of the species occur year round in Virginia, each season presents changing opportunities for wildlife observations.

When we venture out onto the water or along the coastlines of Virginia's rivers, bays and ocean, we are sharing the natural habitats of marine mammals and sea turtles and should be respectful of their need for undisturbed space. Responsible wildlife viewing reduces the potential for harassment and disturbance of animals and preserves sensitive natural habitats. The following guidelines can be used to practice responsible viewing habits.

On The Water

Whether boating, fishing, paddling or just swimming, you can help to protect marine mammals and sea turtles by practicing the following guidelines:

  • Steer clear of animals! Do not approach closer than 50 yards to sea turtles, dolphins or seals
  • If you have to move your boat close to animals due to channel markers, shallow water or traffic, maintain a slow set speed and course
  • Never surround or circle animals
  • Avoid sensitive habitats around marshes and submerged vegetation
  • If you wish to observe these animals, or they approach you, maintain 50 yard distance if possible, slow down, approach from the side – never head-on or from behind as if chasing, keep engine in neutral or idle slowly and follow a set course
  • If the animals leave the area, do not chase them, and limit observation times to 15 minutes or less
  • Do not approach closer than 500 yards to right whales, stay at least 50 yards from other large whales
  • If you encounter an animal in distress (injured, entangled or sick) or a dead sea turtle or marine mammal, immediately contact the appropriate authorities. The Virginia Aquarium's Stranding Response Team can be contacted through the 24-hour hotline by calling (757) 385-7575.

On the Beach

Because marine mammals and sea turtles spend most of their lives in the water, it is less common to observe them on the beach or otherwise out of the water.


A whale, dolphin, porpoise or manatee on the beach is in trouble and should be reported immediately to the Aquarium's Stranding Response Team by calling (757) 385-7575.


Seals are usually found in Virginia in winter and other cold water months. Healthy seals can often be observed "hauled out" of water on beaches, rip-rap, and docks, and may simply be resting and should be left alone. At other times, they may be found sick or injured and should be assessed to determine if intervention is needed. People and their pets should stay at least 50 yards from resting seals. If a seal is constantly disturbed and must continue going back into the water, it won't get the rest it needs to stay healthy. Remember that seals are wild animals! No matter how cute and docile they may look, they have very sharp teeth and will bite if feeling threatened. You should call the Aquarium's Stranding Response Team to report any observations of seals in Virginia by calling (757) 385-7575.

Sea Turtles

It is rare to see a healthy sea turtle on the beach in Virginia. Adult female sea turtles lay their nests on land, almost always at night. Because there are very few nests in Virginia (usually less than 20), observations of nesting turtles are very rare. Sea turtle hatchlings emerge from the nests and must cross the beach to reach the ocean. This process also usually happens at night and therefore observations of hatchlings are also rare. Other than nesting females or hatchlings, sea turtles remain in water for their entire lives.

Sea turtles are normally only found in Virginia's bay and coastal waters during the warm water months of May through October. If you observe a sea turtle on the beach in Virginia, it is very likely sick, injured, or dead and represents a stranding. When water temperatures drop quickly, cold-blooded reptiles like sea turtles often find themselves in trouble, a condition called "cold-stunning". Some of these animals may appear deceased but are actually in a coma due to extremely low body temperatures caused by surrounding cold waters. These animals are in need of immediate medical attention! If you come across any sea turtle swimming, floating or stranded on the beach during winter, please stay with it and immediately call the Aquarium Stranding Response Team at (757) 385-7575.​