Blue whale watching Trincomalee

Blue whale Trincomalee

Whale and Dolphin Watching Guidelines

Threats to marine mammals from badly organised whale and dolphin watching excursions are mainly the result of poor and insensitive boat handling by the skipper. Restricting the animals’ freedom of movement is the cardinal error, to be avoided at all costs. Each and every one in a vessel must take responsibility to ensure that best practices are adhered to by the skipper and ultimately the tour company.


If you are fortunate enough to spot whales or dolphins on your trip, handle your boat with sensitivity and caution. Let the animals themselves be your guides; it is up to them, not you, to decide the agenda of your meeting. Their liberty should not be compromised in any way, no matter how apparently benign the intervention may seem to you. Excepting only the safety of members of your party, the welfare of the mammals you are watching should always be your first priority.


In addition to complying with the Sea Mammals (Observation, Regulation and Control) Regulations, No. 1 of 2012, here are some special guidelines to help you get the best out of your whale and dolphin watching expeditions in Sri Lankan waters:

General Protocols
  • Switch off all sonar and depth-sounding equipment to avoid noise pollution.

  • Never instigate physical contact – do not touch the animals!

  • Do not drop food or litter, particularly plastic bags (deadly to many forms of marine life) in the ocean. Never feed animals in the wild.

  • Report any breach of compliance with the whale watching regulations to DWC. Do not take the law into your own hands!

  • Report any incidents involving marine wildlife (e.g. net entanglements, collisions, strandings) to DWC.

Vessel Approaches
  • Use appropriate angles of approach. Never approach cetaceans from directly ahead or astern.

  • When entering, leaving or operating within 400m of a whale (the caution zone), travel at a constant 'no wake’ speed of less 6 knots.

  • Avoid sudden changes in speed, direction or noise level.

  • Approach whales no closer than 100m.

  • Approach dolphins no closer than 50m (for boats up to 6m long) and 100m (for larger vessels). Leave decisions about making closer contact to the animals themselves; dolphins, in particular, will often oblige.

  • In the event a whale approaches or is spotted less than 100m from the vessel, the vessel motors must be put into neutral immediately or cut-off when safe to do so.

  • Friendly dolphin behaviour (such as bow-riding) should be welcomed but never instigated or cultivated by feeding or calling out to the animals.

  • Do not chase, head off or encircle individual animals or groups.

  • Do not move through a pod or between groups so as to separate group members.

  • Take special care around mother/calf pairs, solitary calves and juveniles.

  • If unsure of the animals’ movements or intentions, simply put your engine into neutral and enjoy their company.

  • Contact should be abandoned if, at any stage, the animals show signs of becoming disturbed or alarmed. This is for the safety of your expedition party as well as the comfort of the animals.

  • Avoid spending more than 15-30 minutes in proximity to marine mammals.

Interaction between humans and wild cetaceans is rarely part of the natural order of things. On the contrary, such interactions are rare and precious. They are also fraught with danger to all parties involved, human and animal alike.

As whale and dolphin watching increases in popularity around the coasts of Sri Lanka, the need for guidelines setting out appropriate and acceptable conduct for all parties involved in such interactions has become critical. This is an area in which further legislation and regulation are urgently needed, particularly in relation to the most intimate encounters of all – the ones that occur when humans go swimming with cetaceans.

Be AWARE! Swimming with whales and dolphins is a restricted activity in Sri Lankan waters. You are breaking the law if you get in or attempt to get in the sea for such an activity without the express permission of the Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

In addition to complying with the Sea Mammals (Observation, Regulation and Control) Regulations, No. 1 of 2012, here are some special conditions that should be applied to “swimming with whales”. This section will continue to be updated with further learnings.


The initial objective is to focus on swim with whales trials which includes behaviour of whales and dolphins and the sustainable management of their interactions with boats and swimmers.

Thus, any swim with whales endorsed vessel should have onboard a DWC ranger or appointed Wildlife Sea Marshal to conduct trials. The DWC ranger or Wildlife Sea Marshal shall communicate the best approaches, overlook the in-water activities and shall have the authority to revoke the permit in case of infractions.


Swim with whales endorsed vessel operators should be expected to make a contribution by providing support and additional data from whale and dolphin interactions. These include: Interaction Behaviour Diaries, Vessel Movement Logs, photos and video footage for identification purposes, passenger questionnaires and by providing scientists and research volunteers with in-kind places on board trips.


An Individual Sighting Form should be completed for every swim with whales interaction that will eventually be used to develop a Code of Practice for sustainable management. This Code of Practice developed should be reviewed periodically and amendments made as part of an adaptive management approach.


General Protocols

Every commercial service provider and every person coming into contact with marine mammals should also comply with the following conditions:

  • Each service provider should enter into and sign a written waiver agreement with each guest.

  • Swimming with whales is strictly prohibited when any other operator’s vessel or fishing vessel is present in the vicinity, (say, within 1 nm).

  • Mirissa, Trincomalee and Kalpitiya commercial whale watching zones (to be defined) are prohibited areas.

  • Swimming is strictly prohibited in designated or regular shipping lanes, such as Dondra Head westbound and eastbound lanes.

  • Only one certified vessel under licence may put swimmers in the water with any one pod of marine mammals.

  • No vessel shall approach any whale closer than 100 metres for the purposes of dropping off or picking up any swimmer except in an emergency where the safety of a swimmer is at risk.

  • A crewmember must keep direct watch of any swimmer in the water and never take his or her eyes off the swimmers.

  • For safety reasons, swim with whales activities must not be attempted and cease when wind conditions exceed a steady 10 knots.

  • No herding or corralling of whales and dolphins by a vessel towards a swimmer or group of swimmers.

  • Never enter the water near a pod that has juveniles or calves to protect.

  • In water activity is prohibited and must cease with any mammal at any sign of it becoming aggressive, disturbed or alarmed. These signs include animal starts to leave the area, regular changes in direction or speed of swimming, diving sooner than normal after surfacing (hasty), increased time spent diving compared to time spent at the surface, whale breaching, flipper slapping, lobtailing or any other type of aggressive activity is observed. When threatened, sperm whales may release a cloud of reddish-brown intestinal fluid.

Protocols for Swimmers

The following are guidelines that should be adhered to by any swimmer getting in the water:

  • No hanging off the side of a vessel or bow while vessel is moving.

  • A swimmer may only enter the sea after the engine has been switched off and never from a moving vessel.

  • Enter the water calmly and with minimal noise to reduce potential disturbance to whales.

  • It is prohibited to touch, chase, swim after or free dive during in-water encounters.

  • No swimmer shall approach any whale closer than 10 metres.

  • Do not make physical contact with any animal even if it approaches and take avoidance measures.

  • Avoid aggressive or splashy swimming, free diving and any other behaviour likely to cause disturbance. When swimming keep your flippers below the surface. Swim sideways if necessary.

  • The use of scuba tanks are not permitted in the presence of marine mammals.

  • It is prohibited to use flash underwater photography.

  • No animal specimen can be collected.

In-water Interaction Methods

The following are possible acceptable methods of in-water interactions with whales and dolphins once it is determined that the target species is potentially approachable, appears to be calm and satisfies other previous mentioned conditions:

1.  Rope

Participants 3 to 4m apart, hold onto a rope trailed from the stern of the vessel and are given a thorough briefing beforehand with simple but non-negotiable rules, such as

   a) no letting go of the rope;

   b) no duck diving; and

   c) no swimming toward the mammal(s).

These rules might sound restrictive, but by simply abiding by them, snorkelers have better, safer encounters.

The mammals very quickly establish their comfort zone, which allows them to approach on their own terms.

2.  Soft-in-water

“Soft-in-water” encounter is passive, non-aggressive floating at the surface, wearing mask, fins and snorkel, allowing the mammal to develop an interest in humans.

It is finding a cooperative, tolerant and/or curious mammal and meeting that mammal in the water, calmly and peacefully, permitting a rare and treasured encounter between humans and marine mammals.

It is not aggressive swimming or free diving.

3.  Measured Approach

This is a soft in-water encounter with movement towards the mammal(s) in a benign manner.

  • Initially, the guide gets into the water alone and moves towards the mammal(s) until he or she reaches a distance to where he or she can just see the whale. Normally much further away than the closest point allowed.

  • If the whale appears calm and unbothered, the guide turns to the boat and signals for the guests to swim gently and quietly to behind him or her and stop.

  • The dive guide then swims closer to the whale, again if the whale remains calm and unbothered. The guide again signals to the guests to approach quietly to just behind him.

  • This can be repeated until the dive guide feels they should not go any further and are as close as they should go to the mammal(s). 

In summary, the mammal is never approached by more than one person to determine whether the mammal is approachable or not, calm and unbothered by human presence or not.

  1. Birtles, A., Arnold, P., Curnock, M., Salmon, S., Mangott, A., Sobtzick, S., Valentine, P., Caillaud, A. & Rumney, J. 2008. 'Code of Practice for dwarf minke whale interactions in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area'. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Australia.

  2. Carlson, C. 2007. 'A Review of Whale Watching Guidelines and Regulations around the World.' College of the Atlantic Bar Harbour, Maine, USA. Accessed 16 May 2008.

  3. Carlson, C. 2008. 'A Review of Whale Watching Guidelines and Regulations around the World.' College of the Atlantic Bar Harbour, Maine, USA. Accessed 15 Apr 2013.

  4. Gordon, J., Whale watching with sperm whales : the  importance of research and management. SMRU, University of St Andrews. Unpublished.

  5. GoSL. 2012. Regulations made by the Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife under Section 30 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (Chapter 469) read with Section 71 of the said Act. The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 7 pp

  6. Martenstyn, H. 2013. Out of the Blue: A Guide to Marine Mammals of Sri Lanka, Southern India and the Maldives. Colombo, Sri Lanka.

  7. Silver Bank Regulations – Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic. Secretary of State of the Environment and Natural Resources (LA SEMARN, Phone (809) 472-7170), Santa Domingo, 13 pp. Unofficial copy.

  8. KoT. 2013. 'Tonga Whale Watching and Swimming Regulations 2013'. Kingdom of Tonga. 31 pp. Downloaded on 05-Jul-2016.

  9. Rose, N.A., Weinrich, M., IÑÍGUEZ, M.A., AND FINKLE, M. 'Swim-with-whales tourism – an updated review of commercial operations'. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. SC/57/WW6.

Pre-Swim Protocols

The following protocols should be conducted prior to any swimmer getting in the water with cetaceans:

  • All participants must be given a pre-swim briefing for possible weather and sea conditions, their likely reactions to seeing a whale or dolphin up close when in the water, and the way they must behave during their interaction with the whales and dolphins. The briefing must also give clear explanations as to why passengers must abide by legal requirements and detailed protocols.

  • All participants must perform a mock “soft-in-water” encounter using mask, fins and snorkel, prior to any in-water interaction with whales or dolphins.

Swim with Whales and Dolphins Guidelines