San Francisco Bay is a precious resource for both people and wildlife. We are fortunate to share the Bay with a diversity of wildlife. The open bay, tidal marshes, creeks, and rivers not only provide us with scenic beauty and a place to recreate, but are unique and valuable ecosystems for more than 500 species of wildlife, including nearly 300 bird species. Remember to be considerate of the wildlife you do encounter and avoid disturbing them by maintaining buffer distances. They need their energy for feeding, raising young, and survival.

Observe From a Distance

San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary west of the Mississippi and is a complex and rich ecosystem surrounded by over seven million people. The Bay supports more than 500 species of wildlife, including 105 threatened and 23 endangered species, such as the Ridgeway’s rail and salt marsh harvest mouse.

The opportunities to see wildlife, enjoy the water, and travel to areas inaccessible from land, are some of the reasons we enjoy getting out on the Water Trail. We need to remember that we can often cause a disturbance to the critters we are trying to see. There are ways to lessen our impact and in return, be rewarded with seeing wildlife behave naturally, as well as knowing that we are protecting our resources.

Pay attention to behavior signs from wildlife that you are too close.

Disturbance signs usually begin with an alert response, where an animal stops its activity such as sleeping, foraging, or resting, and begins to watch you. If the animal gets more threatened this usually escalates to flushing behavior (the animal moves away from the disturbance suddenly). Put yourself in their “shoes”!

Maintain the recommended buffer distances from sensitive species.

Remember that there is variability amongst individuals and areas. Even if you are far away, if the animal shows a disturbance response, you are too close. It can be very rewarding to learn the natural behavior of different species. The use of binoculars is an excellent method of observing wildlife without causing a disturbance.

Buffer Distances to Protect Wildlife

Column 1 lists types of wildlife. Column 2 lists allowable and safe distances for observing each type of wildlife.
Species Distance
Rafting waterfowl 820 feet (250 meters)
California Ridgeway’s rail and black rail habitat 50 feet (avoid channels less than 100 feet wide)
Roosting California brown pelicans 164 feet (50 meters)
Nesting wading birds 656 feet (200 meters)
Nesting snowy plovers 656 feet (200 meters)
Nesting burrowing owls 246 feet (75 meters)
Pacific harbor seal haul-outs Pupping season (March – July) 492 feet or 150 meters (328 feet or 100 meters all other times).

harbor seals hauled out on rocks

Paddle at a constant heading and speed when passing wildlife.

When passing by wildlife, maintain constant heading and speed, avoid sudden stops or sudden changes in heading or speed, and avoid paddling directly at animals.

Protect sensitive habitat.

Only launch and land in designated areas and avoid making unauthorized landings or informal trails. Trampling not only destroys habitat for endangered species by destroying vegetation or spreading invasive species, but boaters could inadvertently harm endangered species by disturbing nests or stepping on small animals such as the salt marsh harvest mouse while landing or entering habitat.

Plan your trip to avoid sensitive habitat.

Avoid areas where you know there are sensitive species, such as harbor seal haul-outs, narrow channels, high tide refuge, roosting sites, and nesting colonies. Do not attempt to rescue injured animals. Instead contact your local wild animal rescue group or Marine Mammal Center.

Prevent the spread of invasive species.

San Francisco Bay is at risk of weed invasions that may colonize new areas in the Bay. Weeds may be dispersed by mud or sand attaching to gear or boating equipment. Help protect the Bay and your gear by rinsing off your equipment and boat before you leave or visit another site.