Responsible wildlife watching

Conservation news


Encountering whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine life in their natural environment is an exciting experience. And the summer brings with it longer days, more sunlight, and therefore more chances for phytoplankton to photosynthesise, meaning there is an explosion of life in the food chain. And all this combines to make opportunities to spot marine life even greater.

As we head into summer, more people will be taking to the sea on boats, jet skis, paddleboards, kayaks, or maybe even just walking along the coast. We’ve already seen media reports of humpback whales being spotted off Falmouth in Cornwall, Tenby in Wales and even in the River Clyde and Loch Long in Scotland.

With these increased opportunities to encounter marine wildlife, it is also important to remember they are wild animals and need to be treated with respect.

Marine mammals are sensitive to disturbance, especially when they are resting, have young, or are socialising or feeding - all very important things for marine mammals to be doing! Being responsible when watching them will reduce disturbance and harassment and, therefore, will help to safeguard their populations for the future.

Irresponsible whale-watching can not only cause changes in the behaviour of cetaceans, such as encouraging them to move away from critical habitats (for example, due to prolonged noise pollution from boat engines), but it can also cause extreme injuries to the animal (such as propellor strikes) and even can cause fatalities. Passengers and crew can also be harmed, and boats may also be damaged.

When it comes to whale-watching from a vessel, there are best practices and measures to follow. We strongly encourage all boat users to exercise caution around whales and practice responsible whale-watching:

  • Remain at least 100m away from cetaceans at all times

  • Speeds should be lower than 5 knots when at least 400m from an animal

  • Animals should never be approached directly in front or behind

  • A boat should stay with an animal for a maximum of 30 minutes if there is one vessel present or 15 minutes if there is more than one

  • Boats should not approach if there are already two vessels watching

  • If there are any signs of disturbance, you should retreat slowly and quietly. Signs of disturbance can include sudden or erratic movements, tail slaps, increased travelling speed, and trumpet blows.

Some species of dolphins can elicit interactions with boats and can approach boats to bow ride, if this happens, maintain a steady course of speed and:

  • Be predictable when moving

  • Minimise changes in direction and speed

  • Never chase animals

In the UK, cetaceans and seals are protected under law, and many people do not realise there are rules to protect them. It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to intentionally and/or recklessly disturb these animals. Whether taking to the sea on boats, jet skis, paddleboards, kayaks, or in the case of seals, even just walking along the coast could cause a disturbance. Anyone found to be causing deliberate disturbance to these animals could risk a fine. Some disturbance to these animals may be accidental, but human activity, such as jumping in the water to swim with dolphins, flushing seals from land into the sea, or feeding or touching them, is illegal.

Any disturbance can damage an animal’s health and unnecessarily cause stress; they can also be injured or killed. Watching from afar and limiting time nearby is the best advice when coming across these animals, but here are some other tips to ensure you are watching them safely.


  • Watch from the shore

  • Keep dogs on a lead

  • Keep a safe distance and avoid getting too close

  • Keep calm and quiet

  • Avoid anything which may scare or panic animals

  • Keep any interaction short – no longer than 15 minutes

  • Report incidents of disturbance

Do not

  • Make sudden changes to speed or direction if you’re on a boat or jet ski

  • Drive between groups on a boat or jet ski

  • Chase animals

  • Feed the animals

  • Swim with or try to touch animals

  • Do not approach the animals

Whether it is deliberate or not, disturbance of whales, dolphins and seals is an offence and should be reported. If you see someone causing a disturbance, do not approach them yourself. Report them to the police by calling 101 and tell the operator you are reporting a wildlife crime. You will need to provide:

  • The date, time and location of the disturbance

  • The behaviour of any vessels and of the animals before, during, and after the incident

  • If you can identify them, the species involved

  • The duration of the interaction

  • Any identifying features of people involved or the vessel

  • If it is possible, photos and videos of the disturbance can be extremely useful