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Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code

The Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code has been published by Scottish Natural Heritage to fulfil statutory obligations under  Section 51 of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. The Code is an opportunity to draw together information relating to best practice on watching all species of marine wildlife in and around Scotland. It is expected that the Code will form the basis for more targeted codes and guidance material.

You can find a full copy of codes on the SNH website:
Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code
Guide to Best Practice for Watching Marine Wildlife

This guidance below has been copied from the Code and applies to the section for people out in a boat of any kind who encounters wildlife, intentionally or otherwise. Although the Code should be followed at all times where practical, remember that the first responsibility of the skipper of a vessel is the safety of passengers and crew. Do not put yourself, crew or passengers in danger.

  • Do not cut off an animal or group of animals by moving across their path, and do not approach them from behind.
  • Let the animals decide how close they want you to be. If you see signs of disturbance (such as sudden movements or flight, aggressive behaviour, “heads up”, bunching together, tail slaps) then you should move away and if possible take an alternative route or wait for the animals to move on.
  • If animals are moving in a consistent direction, maintain a steady parallel course and where possible keep above the recommended minimum distances discussed in the Guide.
  • If marine mammals decide to approach you (for example to bow ride), try
    to maintain a steady speed and course. Try not to present your propellers to approaching animals.
  • Make sure the animals are not surrounded. If other people are watching, try to stay on the same side. Avoid corralling or boxing animals in against the shoreline or in sea lochs or bays.
  • If you can see one animal at the surface, others may well be nearby, just below the surface out of sight. Keep a careful lookout at all times.
  • Remember that with more boats and people about, the likelihood of disturbance will be greater.
  • Take extra care during sensitive times of year in places where animals may be feeding, resting, breeding or with their young:
    • Do not intentionally break up or put up rafts of birds or flush seals into the sea.
    • Avoid landing or entering the sea adjacent to designated seal haul-out sites.
    • Be careful not to split up groups, or mothers and young, and never approach apparently lone young animals.
    • Watch out for basking sharks at tidal fronts where different water bodies meet (often marked on the surface of the water by lines of debris or foam) as they may be feeding and not be aware of your presence.
  • If watching whales, dolphins or porpoises, switch off your echo sounder if it is safe to do so. These animals are particularly sensitive to underwater noise and it may interfere with their communication, navigation and foraging.
  • Avoid using flash photography – check the default setting on your camera.
  • Do not throw litter into the sea

If you are using an engine:

  • Avoid sudden unpredictable changes in speed, direction and engine noise.
  • Keep your engine and propeller well maintained to minimise noise.

If you are under sail, paddling or rowing:

  • Do not take advantage of your ability to approach quietly – it may result in wildlife being suddenly startled by your proximity.
  • Be aware of any wildlife around your vessel so that you can act as quickly as possible to minimise disturbance.
  • Remember that small craft are vulnerable. Getting too close to marine animals may put you at risk.
  • If you are under sail, avoid tacking, gybing and flapping sails close to marine wildlife, if possible.
  • When seals are hauled out on the shore, they are particularly prone to disturbance from passing kayaks. If paddling, give haul-out sites a wide berth.

If you are using a Jetski or other PWC

Personal water craft (sometimes known as “jet skis”) are not recommended for viewing marine wildlife. They are fast, noisy, and low in the water. Their speed and limited range of visibility means that collisions may occur and can be serious for both parties.

  • Keep a good lookout at all times, and keep away from marine wildlife where possible.
  • If you have an unexpected encounter with marine wildlife, slow down and move away steadily to 100 metres or more.