TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Nature Issues For Kayakers

Rules of the Wild By Tom Holtey
Unless noted all photos courtesy of Andy Thompson of Wild Light Images
Also see our Forum for a lively helpful discussion of on-water camera protection.

It is very exciting to see and photograph wildlife in their natural habitat. A kayak can make that a vivid and exciting experience. Although those individuals who would wish a wild animal harm are far and few between, the rest of us have to be careful not to "love the wildlife to death."

In other words we must be mindful to respect their needs as we would our own or our neighbor's and not cause a disturbance that can have detrimental effects on them. That being said, and as you will see in many of the photos below, many creatures of the wild are naturally curious and it is sometimes hard to avoid interacting with them. What follows are some helpful insights:

Punching The Clock

Beaver by Andrew ThompsonWhen you are out and about in the wilds on your kayak excursions you will likely encounter the furry and feathered citizens who live and "work" in your playground.

Beaver by Andrew ThompsonWild creatures, including humans, need access to food and water, rest and shelter, and to live free of disturbances that will rob them of these modes of survival.

Also, much like us, wild animals go to work, and do so most of the time. No, they do not punch a clock, 9-5, at an office or factory job, but spend most of their waking day searching for food (their "money"), building a home, raising a family, and getting a good night's sleep.

If we were prevented from going to work and getting paid we would be very unhappy, and suffer an economic hardship; this would be how a sea otter would feel if paddlers got too close while he is cracking his shells. Just imagine if someone chased you out of a restaurant just after getting served!

Intruder Alert

No one likes getting waken in the middle of the night to the sound of a load stereo, either; which must be what it is like for a seal sleeping on the beach while people want to see how close they can get.

Trespassers or vandals are not welcome in your backyard, whether it be a human, a black bear or coyote threatening your children or your pets. While in their backyard afford them the same space and respect you would want for yourself or give to your neighbors. Wear And Tear

Sea Turtle by Tom HolteyAs you can no doubt tell from the photos in this article Kayaking lends itself to encounters with lots of wildlife. This curious turtle, captured by a water camera held below my kayak, is well known to fall victim to the chocking hazard of a carelessly discarded sandwich bag. They tend to believe they are jellyfish.

Coastal and other aquatic environments are well suited to supporting an abundance of life and are relatively free of disturbance from people. Islands and wetlands and the birds that make them their home, are particularly vulnerable. While kayaking past, or landing and walking on an island we must be careful not to trespass on a bird's home.

Sea Birds choose remote islands as nesting sights because they are free of predators and disturbances. Boaters can disrupt this balance by being perceived as a predator. Many sea birds build an underground home, and just walking around can cave it in and break the eggs.

Dolphins by Tom HolteyMother birds will often abandon a nest if they perceive a threat. This leaves the nest open to predators such as gulls, or mammals. In fact some predators will follow a human to allow them to flush out the parents and swoop in for a meal of eggs or chicks. Unattended eggs are also in danger of becoming too cold or hot, killing the unborn young.

Bear in mind that it "costs" a lot of "animal money" to raise a family, while a lost clutch of eggs may be considered an emotional loss, it is also an economic loss, and most likely no offspring will be produced that season, and you will see less birds the next. (photo: Dolphins by Tom Holtey - another water camera snorkling below the kayak)

Rules, Regulations And Common Sense

Many paddling destinations have local rules regarding your use of a wildlife habitat. Federal and State agencies do as well. A fantastic resource for most geographical areas can be had in a series of pamphlets from the Leave No Trace program (see below) inspired and supported by N.O.L.S. (National Outdoor Leadership School). Signs are usually posted in fragile areas, on the kiosk at a boat launch or trail head; but if not, don't be careless.


loon nestIf you see a nest you are already too close. We were circumnavigating this small island on a lake in the Adarondacks when we were surprised by this nest. Loon parents share in sitting on the nest but it seems these two eggs only had one...or perhaps our presence scared her off without our noticing. Almost immediately she engaged in a wild display as if to draw us away. But this behavior would also attract a loon's preditor. Eagles and large ravens abounded in the area. Loon chicks rarely survive even with protective biologists nearby.

Dancing Loon by Andrew ThompsonMost sea birds come to the same island every season and often use the very same nest each year. It is tempting to take an abandoned nest home as a souvenir and we know kids who have collected several...but the little Eastern Phoebe who built a nest carefully perched on our back door's outer frame has been returning to that same nest now each spring for at least three years. How much more work goes into one on an island picked clean of building material!

Some islands have been posted off limits, as wildlife nesting areas, so look for signs and avoid the fines. A flock of birds circling over an island will often indicate that it is a nesting site. It may be best to stay in your boat or keep your distance to 100 yards from a nesting area. Federal regulations prohibit approaching eagles and their nests any closer than 500 feet.

Loon with Chick by Andrew ThompsonLoons and other waterfowl build nests on small islands often made by the birds themselves with the piling up of vegetation. It is very easy to get close up and view a nest, but this will cause the mother bird to act franticly, maybe feigning a broken wing. Naturally this can also lead to the problems of abandonment as described above.

Cattle Egret by Andrew ThompsonNesting season for most birds, both fresh and salt water, is the spring and even the summer months as some are known to raise two or three broods.

Rafting birds, floating flocks on the water, like Eider ducks, group together that way to protect their young. An approaching group of kayakers would be too much for the birds and they would feel that they could not defend against such a threat. The flock can leave the young birds behind, leaving them vulnerable to predators from above and below.


by GrayhawkBirds are quite common in all environments, but sea kayakers will likely encounter marine mammals including whales, porpoise, dolphin, seals, sea lions, manatees The Marine Mammal Protection Act has been established to protect them, prohibiting harassment, feeding and touching of them. Regulations prohibit approaching these animals closer than 100 yards and local regulations may require even more distance. For a good read about Florida's very exposed and endangered Manatee see TopKayaker.net's article: Florida's Winter Manatee Migration and especially Manatee Interaction Guide For Kayakers.

Mammals too can abandon their young if disturbed, not to mention that a mother animal can become very aggressive and dangerous if she feels that her offspring are endangered. Seals and sea lions resting on shore can stampede if surprised by boaters and trample their own young. Mothers can be come separated from their babies, leaving them vulnerable to shark attack. (Bear in mind that sharks often frequent the waters around haul outs where seals rest on shore. The seals are often on land to avoid the patroling sharks.)

May through June is generally the child rearing time for seals and sea lions. The young can only nurse while on shore, and it is very important that they eat on schedule. (Any one with their own kids will know this.) If you see the seals raise their head and/or chest, or flee to the water, then you are too close.


Moose by Andrew ThompsonWell this probably sounds like "stay away" and "hands off", but you can get some good wildlife viewing and photography in despite respecting the wildlife's needs. Just apply some basic principles. The main thing is not to interfere and cause the animals to change their behavior because of your presence. You want to photograph animals going about their natural business, not their rear end running away from you.

A telephoto lens on the camera is the best way to keep your distance. If you are worried about ruining a fancy camera in the aquatic, you can get disposable cameras with a telephoto lens built in.

Observe wildlife on its own terms; do not pursue them. Once you have spooked an animal you should back off. If an animal feels that it is being chased it will stress out the creature, consuming hard won energy, and preventing it from attending its normal business. It is OK for whales and other marine mammals to approach you at distances of closer than 100 yards, but you cannot actively approach them. Waiting quietly and patiently in a likely place will allow the curious to investigate you.

Learn about the animal's habitat and behavior before you venture out into their world. Again, visit the Leave No Trace store for pamphlets (see below). Guidebooks for most every creature everywhere are widely available. At Amazon.com you can simply type in "Wildlife Watching" and get an incredibly long list of guides in virtually every area of the world; or see our list of our recommendations with links in our book suggestions below.

Guide books will help you understand their needs and plan a fair way of seeing them in a natural pose. Use extra care during nesting, birthing and young rearing seasons. If you will be sitting in one place a blind or camouflage can aid you and put the creatures at ease, by concealing your presence. Exactly how you can do this on a kayak varies. Some just tuck some brush on the deck rigging and backrest. Hunting catalogs may be full of suggestions.


  • Approach from upwind to let the animal gently know of your presence. If moving, keep in view, to prevent looking like a stalking predator.

  • Talk in low voices.

  • Move slowly, and not directly toward the animal. Walk in single file if near a nesting area, first person in the line must be very careful about foot placement, so not to cave in underground nest or step on hidden eggs, the others behind can do the observing.

  • Back off from any animal that seems disturbed, or frightened.

Please apply these principles to all wildlife, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, land mammals and, yes, even insects.

The Nature "Nazi"

Hawaiian Monk Seal by AthenaJust a note for those of you who participate in wildlife protection programs ...or who find themselves getting scolded by their volunteers: Respond quickly and quietly. QUIETLY.

This seal, taken with a zoom lens by Athena while hiking, was sound asleep when this picture was about to be taken. It raised its head and bolted for the water when a local volunteer began wildly screeming and waving her arms, not trusting that she was well intentioned to keep a safe distance away.

Photographer Andrew Thompson who contributed many photos for this article mentioned a similar experience while observing a loon and its young. The disturbance made by the volunteer far out did any commotion being caused by Andy's presence.

California Seal by AthenaRegardless of whose at fault, do what is best for the animal IN THE MOMENT. If a protector is causing a scene, back off rather than argue, disturbing the situation even further.

Sometimes it may appear the animal is in distress. QUIETLY seek someone out who has the credentials to help. Don't take it upon yourself.

In this photo of California Seals it appears, as it did to us at the time, that they are beached, dead or injured. They were mearly sleeping and up on the beach, safely with their young, away from a school of killer whales we spotted earlier. Had we approached we may have caused them to charge for the water and into the waiting jaws of preditors.


Related Articles:

Wildlife Viewing & Photography Tips For Kayakers by Andrew Thompson

How To Avoid Becoming Shark Bait - A Guide For Kayakers Against Shark, Alligator or Crocodile Attacks

Leave No Trace pamphlets with important nature tips for you particular area are available in the LNT online store at: http://www.lnt.org

NOLS - National Outdoor Leadership School http://www.nols.edu/

Also see our Forum for a lively helpful discussion of on-water camera protection.


From Tom's Topkayaker Shop:

Soft paths from TopKayaker.netSOFT PATHS, N.O.L.S. (National Outdoor Leadership School)
by Bruce Hampton & David Cole
Stackpole Books, ISBN 0-811-7-3092-1

This is the definitive guide to minimum impact camping and outdoors travel. If you love the wilds then this book will help you not to "love the wilds to death." The techniques in this book will teach people how to preserve outdoor destinations for wild life and fellow adventures alike.

From Amazon.com (link supports this site)

Wildlife Watchers handbook The National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watcher's Handbook: A Guide to Observing Animals in the Wild
by Joe LA Tourrette, Joe La Tourrette, Cheryl Ziebart (Illustrator) This clear, informative handbook geared for youth 9 to 12 yrs, begins with a section on habitat regions of the U.S. and Canada and continues with tips on timing wildlife observation, field awareness, and going prepared for comfort and safety. The chapters on where to observe wildlife cover everything from national parks to one's own backyard. Though the emphasis is on walking and hiking, suggestions for mountain biking, canoeing, snorkeling, and other alternatives for viewing animals are provided.

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