Spotting an orca or dolphin in the wild is considered by many as a holiday highlight but experts are warning people to enjoy marine creatures from a respectful distance.

As more Kiwis head to beaches over the summer months and encounter marine mammals up close, experts say some nature lovers are “pushing the limits” with animals too often paying the price.

“Animals can get cut up pretty badly,” said Department of Conservation (DOC) volunteer Nathan Pettigrew, of the rate animals are being struck by watercraft.

“We’ve got one of the most run-over population of orca in the world and you do see the scars.

“The thing is — with the marine life we’ve got here in New Zealand — it’s a real privilege. What we’ve got here, people can only dream of seeing,” he said.

DOC said swimming with dolphins is allowed, provided there are no calves among the pods. However, swimming around orca and whales isn’t allowed at any time, and boats are not permitted within 50m of whales even when the engine is turned off.

“It’s important basically to slow down any time you see marine mammals and the rule for that is 300m,” said DOC marine technical advisor Hannah Hendricks.

“People are pushing the limits. With the likes of social media and stuff, people want the shot; everybody wants the photo and they’re all getting a bit too close,” said Pettigrew.

Marine ecology professor at Auckland University Rochelle Constantine said one of the big concerns is dolphin sightings in the Coromandel are attracting both swimmers and jet skiers.

“Particularly this time of year when there’s a lot of calves around [and] a lot of babies, and they’re not as fast [or] as nimble, the mothers are very protective of them. You have to be very, very careful with them,” she said.

“It’s really important we’re protecting our marine mammals around New Zealand,” said Hendricks. “Many of them are threatened, and if we can reduce the impact on them as much as possible, they’ll have the best chance of survival.”

Those not following the rules could face up to two years in prison, or $250,000 in fines.