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.
Increasingly, whales and dolphins (cetaceans) around the world are facing modern pressures upon their environment – pollution, accidental capture in fishing nets, and disturbance from vessels, particularly high-speed craft.
Recreational activities in inshore waters have burgeoned recently, and can pose a major threat to whales and dolphins either by direct injury when animals are accidentally cut by the boat’s propeller, or by interference or stress caused from the high frequency sounds made by the vessel’s motor.
There is no reason why boats and whales and dolphins should not be able to co-exist if care is taken to observe the following rules:
IF YOU SIGHT CETACEANS AT A DISTANCE, MAKE FORWARD PROGRESS MAINTAINING A STEADY SPEED, SLOWING DOWN TO SIX KNOTS OR LESS WHEN YOU ARE WITHIN A KILOMETRE OF THEM. ONCE WITHIN THIS CAUTION ZONE DO NOT APPROACH CLOSER THAN 100 METRES OF THE ANIMALS, AND DO NOT REMAIN IN CONTACT WITH THE ANIMALS FOR LONGER THAN 15 MINUTES.
DO NOT CHASE CETACEANS, DRIVE A BOAT DIRECTLY TOWARDS THEM, OR ENCIRCLE THEM; WHEREVER POSSIBLE, LET THEM APPROACH YOU. IF THEY CHOOSE TO APPROACH YOUR VESSEL, OR BOW-RIDE, MAINTAIN A STEADY SPEED AND COURSE
DO NOT RESPOND TO THEM BY CHANGING COURSE OR SPEED IN A SUDDEN OR ERRATIC MANNER; SLOWING DOWN OR STOPPING SUDDENLY CAN CONFUSE AND ALARM CETACEANS AS MUCH AS SUDDEN ACCELERATION.
WHEN LEAVING THE VICINITY OF CETACEANS IT IS IMPORTANT TO ESTABLISH WHERE ALL OF THE ANIMALS ARE, BEFORE DEPARTING AT SLOW SPEED. ONLY RESUME MAXIMUM SPEED WHEN YOU ARE ONE KILOMETRE AWAY.
ALLOW GROUPS OF CETACEANS TO REMAIN TOGETHER. AVOID DELIBERATELY DRIVING THROUGH, OR BETWEEN, GROUPS OF CETACEANS
AVOID CLOSE APPROACH TO CETACEANS WITH YOUNG. YOU RISK DISRUPTING MOTHER-CALF BONDS AND EXPOSE INEXPERIENCED YOUNG TO STRESS AND POSSIBLE BOAT STRIKES
DO NOT SWIM WITH, TOUCH OR FEED WHALES OR DOLPHINS, FOR YOUR SAFETY AND THEIRS. BESIDES THE STRESS YOU CAN CAUSE THEM, REMEMBER THAT, JUST AS IN HUMANS, DISEASES CAN BE SPREAD BY CLOSE CONTACT, AND CETACEANS ARE LARGER THAN HUMANS AND CAN CAUSE UNWITTING INJURY
ENSURE THAT NO MORE THAN TWO VESSELS ARE WITHIN A KILOMETRE OF CETACEANS AT ANY ONE TIME AND NO MORE THAN ONE BOAT WITHIN CLOSE PROXIMITY. REFRAIN FROM CALLING OTHER VESSELS TO JOIN YOU.
ALWAYS ALLOW CETACEANS AN ESCAPE ROUTE. AVOID BOXING THEM IN BETWEEN VESSELS
MOVE AWAY SLOWLY IF YOU NOTICE SIGNS OF DISTURBANCE, SUCH AS REPEATED AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOUR, ERRATIC CHANGES IN SPEED AND DIRECTION, OR LENGTHY PERIODS UNDERWATER
POSSIBLE SOURCES OF NOISE DISTURBANCE CAN BE AVOIDED BY ENSURING SPEEDS ARE NEVER GREATER THAN TEN KNOTS, AND BY KEEPING THE ENGINE AND PROPELLER WELL-MAINTAINED. ON THE OTHER HAND, CARE SHOULD BE TAKEN TO AVOID COLLISION WITH DOLPHINS WHEN USING SAILING BOATS OR BOATS WITH A LOW ENGINE NOISE AS THE ANIMALS ARE LESS LIKELY TO HEAR THE VESSEL UNTIL IT IS CLOSE
PEOPLE REGULARLY USING VESSELS IN AREAS WHERE CETACEANS ARE KNOWN TO OCCUR SHOULD CONSIDER FITTING PROPELLER GUARDS TO MINIMISE THE RISK OF INJURY TO CETACEANS
PLEASE NOTE THAT UNDER UK LAW, IT IS AN OFFENCE TO KILL, INJURE OR TAKE ANY WHALE OR DOLPHIN; OR TO INTENTIONALLY OR RECKLESSLY DISTURB ANY WHALE OR DOLPHIN. WITH THE NEW CRoW ACT AMENDMENTS, ANYONE COMMITTING SUCH AN OFFENCE COULD FACE UP TO 6 MONTHS IN PRISON.
Remember that whales, dolphins and porpoises use sound as a daily part of their life, for locating and capturing food, locating and communicating with one another, detecting predators, and forming a picture of their underwater environment in often very dim light. Many of the sounds made by craft directly overlap the frequencies used by dolphins and porpoises, particularly those caused by cavitation of the propeller blade, producing a very loud broadband, high frequency noise. This causes interference with their daily activities, sometimes excluding them from preferred feeding or nursery areas. It can also lead to undue stress, particularly when mothers are pregnant or with small young. Scientific studies have shown that dolphins respond negatively to craft moving directly at them, increasing the time they spend underwater and often swimming rapidly away from the sound source.
Historically, solitary dolphins have appeared around our shores for many different reasons. Sometimes these animals are simply passing through an area on their way to join another dolphin group, however, there are occasions when these solitary animals, like Kylie the Clyde’s common dolphin, remain in an area, become habituated to human presence and are eventually termed a sociable, solitary dolphin.
All too frequently, the result of encountering these unique individuals ends to the detriment of the dolphin as the wish to interact with these individuals overrides our commonsense.
There is an additional problem with these animals; each is unique and each may, depending on the stage of habituation actually seek out contact. Often, following a standard code of conduct will not take into consideration the unique behaviour displayed by these animals and so the WiSe course has made the decision to provide a special mention of these animals so that as operators, you are prepared for an encounter which will be determined by the dolphin and could be different in every case and/or encounter.
ALL OF THE POINTS WITHIN THE CETACEAN CODE OF CONDUCT APPLY HERE, WITH THE ADDITION OF THE FOLLOWING POINTS:
- – Maintaining a distance of 100m may be possible with a dolphin group, however a sociable, solitary dolphin is likely to approach you. Whereas other dolphin groups will choose to leave you when they lose interest, solitary dolphins may not wish to leave your vessel and so may follow you away from the site of encounter.
- – IT IS IMPORTANT THAT, WHERE POSSIBLE, YOU ENSURE THE DOLPHIN IS NOT STILL FOLLOWING YOU WHEN YOU RETURN TO HARBOUR/MARINA FACILITIES. IF IT IS UNAVOIDABLE THEN INFORM THE HARBOUR AUTHORITIES UPON YOUR ARRIVAL. They may already be aware of the dolphin in the vicinity, however if not, advise them to call British Divers Marine Life Rescue (01825 765546), who will decide whether further action needs to be taken.
- – SOCIABLE, SOLITARY DOLPHINS APPEAR TO HAVE A FASCINATION WITH BOAT PROPELLORS AND MAY GET DANGEROUSLY CLOSE TO THE ROTATING PROPELLOR. IF THAT IS THE CASE, AND IT IS SAFE TO DO SO, PUT YOUR ENGINE INTO NEUTRAL AND DRIFT. The dolphin will eventually lose interest, however be warned that the dolphin is likely to return to your vessel once the engine is re-started if still in the vicinity. They may also hover beside a stationary boat propeller or rub alongside a rudder.
- – IF THE DOLPHIN CONTINUES TO FOLLOW YOU AND/OR GET CLOSE TO THE PROPELLOR THEN MAINTAIN A STEADY SPEED AND COURSE UNTIL RETURNING TO HARBOUR/MARINA AND THEN TAKE APPROPRIATE ACTION IF NECESSARY.
- – AVOID ANY KNOWN AREAS OF REST OR FEEDING FOR AN INDIVIDUAL, OR IF YOU OBSERVE RESTING/FEEDING BEHAVIOUR AT THE SURFACE. DO NOT APPROACH, EVEN TO WITHIN 100M. THESE ARE THE MOST CRUCIAL BEHAVIOURS AND ARE PERHAPS MORE IMPORTANT FOR SOCIABLE, SOLITARY DOLPHINS WHO DO NOT HAVE OTHER DOLPHINS TO RELY UPON.
- – IF ANOTHER BOAT IS ENGAGED IN AN ENCOUNTER WITH A SOLITARY DOLPHIN DO NOT TRY TO ENTICE THE DOLPHIN AWAY. HAVE GOOD MANNERS AND PUT YOUR ENGINE IN NEUTRAL AND OBSERVE FROM A DISTANCE ñ THE NEXT ENCOUNTER COULD BE YOURS AND THIS PREVENTS THE DOLPHIN GETTING STRESSED.
- – IF THERE IS A RESIDENT, SOCIABLE, SOLITARY DOLPHIN IN THE AREA YOU MAY WISH TO CONSIDER FITTING A PROPELLER GUARD TO MINIMISE THE RISK OF INJURY TO THE DOLPHIN, ALTHOUGH THIS MAY DEPEND ON THE INDIVIDUAL DOLPHIN AND ITS PARTICULAR BEHAVIOUR.
- – IT IS EVEN MORE IMPORTANT THAT YOU DO NOT SWIM WITH, TOUCH OR FEED A SOCIABLE, SOLITARY DOLPHIN. THIS HELPS TO HABITUATE THEM TO HUMANS, PERMITTING THEM TO LOSE THEIR NATURAL FEAR AND CAN LEAD TO THEM REQUIRING MANAGEMENT TO PREVENT INJURY, DISTURBANCE OR IN THE WORSE CASES DEATH.
Many thanks to Kenneth Gibson MSP (Scottish Government Blue Whale Species Champion) for submitting a Parliamentary Motion to highlight and condemn Iceland’s recent slaughter of endangered blue and fin whales and to condemn this barbaric industry in all its forms.
That the Parliament notes with concern reports that on 07 July 2018, a rare blue whale was slaughtered in the fjord of Hvalfjordur in Iceland; recognises that blue whales were hunted to the brink of extinction by commercial whalers from many countries, including the UK, with the population in the Atlantic falling from an estimated 239,000 before hunting began in the late 19th century to just 360 individual whales in 1966, when the species was under the auspices of the International Whaling Commission; understands that while the whaling company, Hvalur hf, claims that the whale was a blue-fin whale hybrid, experts agree that the mammal possessed all the features of a blue whale, including mottled blue skin, a black baleen, and a relatively small hooked dorsal film; notes that Iceland set record-high quotas for the export of fin whales this year, with a base quota of 209 whales plus an addition 30 from last years unused quota, in spite of the International Whaling Commission’s global moratorium on commercial whaling; believes that this incident confirms the fact that there is no such thing as responsible whaling and the continued facilitation of fin whale hunting is putting protected species such as blue whales at unnecessary risk; is concerned that in spite of its protected status, blue whale meat still shows up in Japanese markets labelled as that of other species; condemns any action which threatens the blue whale population, which is currently estimated at only 10,000-25,000 worldwide, making them one of the rarest whales on the planet, and encourages Icelandic authorities to confirm the species of the whale in question and put an end to the entirely unnecessary practice of whaling entirely, to protect the populations of all whales, including the magnificent blue whale, the largest species of fauna that has ever been known to have existed on this planet.
Kenneth Gibson MSP