Guidance for watching wildlife this summer

Guidance for watching wildlife this summer
Photo: Rebecca Woollard

As lockdown eases and the summer approaches, whales, dolphins, porpoises and other marine mammals are at risk of disturbance as people head to the coast and out to sea.

Whether taking to the sea on boats, jet skis, paddleboards, kayaks or even just walking along the coast, many people do not know that there are, in fact, laws against the disturbance of cetaceans and those breaking them could risk fines.

Wildlife charities, including Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), are calling for those spending time at sea over the coming months, to ensure that any animals are given space and watched from a distance.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, marine animals have experienced quieter waters around the UK. However, as the latest lockdown eases and the weather improves, members of the public are beginning to flock to the coast and there are fears of a rise in the disturbance of marine animals.

Marine mammals are most vulnerable when they have young, are resting, feeding, or socialising and can be scared off from important habitats, injured or even killed. 

"Coming across whales, dolphins, seals and other marine life can be very exciting." said Lucy Babey, ORCA's Head of Science & Conservation. "However, it's crucial that we remember these are wild animals and therefore need to be treated with respect. In particular, animals with calves should be treated with care. Any disturbance can be damaging to the animal’s health and stress it unnecessarily. Watching from afar and limiting your time nearby is always the best advice."

Whilst some disturbance to these animals is accidental, human activity such as jumping in the water to swim with dolphins, feeding or touching them is strongly warned against. Cetaceans are protected under UK law, and many people do not realise that there are rules to protect them, with fines of up to £5000 given to anyone found to be causing deliberate disturbance. Tips for safely watching these animals include:  


  • 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

The most recent example of marine mammal disturbance is to the walrus spotted off the Pembrokeshire coastline in recent weeks. Concerns were raised as members of the public flocked to see this rare sight.  However, this crowding is likely to have caused additional stress to the animal, which was already likely to be stressed as it was in an unfamiliar environment. 

There was also a recent incident of a young common seal near Hammersmith in Barnes, who had to be put down after being attacked by a dog and suffering a broken bone, dislocation and damage to its joints, ligaments and nerves. The injuries it suffered made it impossible to treat the seal and return him to the wild.

You can find out more about how to minimise disturbance to marine mammals and the WDC #Rudetointrude campaign here