• Dr Mark Orams is a professor of marine recreation and tourism, head of AUT's School of Sport and Recreation and co-chair of the International Coastal and Marine Tourism Society.

In recent weeks we have seen numerous reports of New Zealanders encountering whales and dolphins while out enjoying our coastal waters. The recording and sharing of these interactions has drawn attention to the people and animals involved, and has highlighted a principle we should never lose sight of while at play on the water - wild animals deserve our respect and care.

The Department of Conservation's reaction to recent events, quoting the requirements and regulations of the Marine Mammals Protection Act, has drawn irate responses from many - as have the views of marine mammal conservation advocates.

If whales, dolphins and other marine creatures approach people who are out surfing, fishing, paddle boarding and sailing, how can this be harmful? Was it not the marine mammal's choice to approach and interact with the person involved? And in practice, how can a paddle boarder or surfer stay 100 metres away from a marine mammal (as required under the law), when the orca or dolphin is so much more mobile in the water and they make the approach?

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All reasonable questions.

Why are DoC and marine mammal scientists so cautious about such encounters? There is widespread evidence that interactions between people and marine mammals can have negative outcomes.

Let's remember that orca and dolphins are predators. They hunt and kill to survive. They are large and powerful animals, and while there are no records of them harming people in New Zealand waters, the possibility remains - even if it is not deliberate.

What is more likely is that the marine mammals themselves might be harmed, either through ignorance or through ill-intentioned attempts to swim, ride or otherwise capture an experience that could bring fame via social media.

Such self-serving attempts to garner attention are becoming more common worldwide and, now, locally.

I hope that few in New Zealand would disagree with the notion that wild animals deserve our respect and care. To translate the idea into reality, take a lesson from recent events.

If you are fortunate enough to be approached by a marine mammal while out enjoying the great outdoor recreation opportunities our coastal waters provide, then slowing to a respectful speed - or stopping and watching quietly - is the best strategy.

That way the choice to approach and to move away becomes the animal's, and we are left with a powerful experience of the special connection that exists between us and our mammalian cousins living in our seas.

We can also then draw satisfaction from the knowledge that our behaviour has shown them the respect they deserve.