Introduction: protecting cetaceans

The aim of the Pelagos Sanctuary is to protect marine mammals and their habitats against all sources of disturbance: pollution, noise, high-speed vehicle racing, accidental catches, disturbances caused by tourist activity etc.
In France, the Ministerial Decree of July 1st, 2011, makes the intentional disturbance of marine mammals in French territorial waters a punishable offense. This decree has been modified by the Decree of September 3rd, 2020, which now defines every approach of the individuals to less than 100 meters in the marine protected areas as intentional disturbance.
In addition, the Decree 2021-172 of the Maritime Prefecture of the Mediterranean extends this principle to all French Mediterranean waters since July 6th, 2021. 

For more information on how the code of conduct is applied in the French waters of the Sanctuary, click here.
Cetaceans are also protected by international Agreements: the Barcelona, Bern and Bonn Conventions and ACCOBAMS (Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area).

Definition and Purpose

  • The term "whale watching" refers to the activity of cetacean sightings. It is an English expression that is used around the world to describe the activity.
  • A whale watching tour operator is anyone who organizes the activity of observing cetaceans in their natural environment.

Organizing a rewarding whale watching experience

  • Operators should ensure that tours include an educational presentation on the marine environment and the cetaceans within it by a qualified and trained guide. This guide should be able to identify the species encountered and determine their phases of activity.
  • Whale watching should not take place within 5 nautical miles* of the coast, as cetaceans in this area are already very disturbed by human activities.

*In the specific case of Corsica and within the context of ‘fishing tourism’, this restriction may be subject to particular recommendations and exemptions

Rules for whale watching

Whale watching can, if poorly practiced, be a source of disturbance to cetaceans: respect their peace and quiet. Whether you are a pleasure boater, fisherman, whale watching operator or other user of the marine environment, the rules set out below apply both within the Sanctuary and beyond it.

Be alert to signs of disturbance

  • Any attempt to approach pods in which newborn cetaceans are seen to be present is prohibited.
  • Any attempt to approach should immediately be stopped if the animals are disturbed – for example, an effort to flee (acceleration, change in direction, attempt to move away from observers) should be considered as a sign of disturbance.

Viewing area (see illustration)

  • The 300-meter distance is the outer limit of the viewing area – within this area, all human activity is subject to strict rules.
  • The boat should not be positioned in the area in front of the animals.
  • So that the boat is not perceived as a chaser, it should not approach cetacean from behind.
  • The 100-meter distance is the outer limit of the no go zone and prohibits entry. This does not apply to cetaceans that spontaneously approach boats.

Steering a boat though the viewing area (300 m)

  • Once cetaceans are seen and regardless of how far away they are, be especially alert and limit your speed. Other animals may be in the area.
  • Approach cetaceans by gradually drawing alongside them so that you are parallel to the path they are taking. The maximum speed is 5 knots.
  • The boat must be positioned parallel to the animals and avoid any sudden change in speed or direction.
  • When the boat reaches the edge of the no go zone (100 m), its relative speed must drop to zero, with the engine idling, if desired, but not stopped, so that the boat can still be controlled.
  • The speed of the boat should match that of the slowest animal.
  • In order to avoid any acoustic disturbances within the viewing area, depth sensors and sonar devices must be turned off.
  • After a viewing, the boat should steadily move away from the site via a route that unambiguously signals its departure.

Boats within the viewing area

  • Only one boat is allowed within the viewing area at any one time.
  • Each boat should remain in the viewing area for no more than approximately 15 minutes if other boats are waiting.

Special case when the animals come to the boat of their own accord

  • When cetaceans voluntarily approach a boat, passengers must not attempt to touch the animals, either directly or using any instruments, swim with them or feed them.
  • Most of the above rules also remain in force, particularly the ban on entering groups, and keeping to a slow, regular pace.


pdf  Download the observation form pdf (French version  or pdf Italian version )

pdf  Code of conduct