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Disturbance – from the dolphin’s point of view

Dave the dolphin

Picture this: it is the weekend, you are spending time with your family in your back garden barbecuing, when a horde of people you have never seen before stops on the green across the street, revving the motors of their Harley Davidsons, shouting loudly, looking over your fence, climbing over it to snatch the burger out of your hand which you just wanted to bite into and hold it up like a trophy while their mate takes a picture. Would you be annoyed, scared, ready to call the police or to leave your garden? I’d say yes.

That’s what happened to a group of orcas in Scotland recently who were feeding on a grey seal when a pleasure boat drove into their midst and the people on board snatched a piece of blubber out of the water and took pictures of them with it which they then proudly posted online.

Whenever there is news about a cetacean close to shore, be it orcas, a humpback whale or a solitary dolphins, people are attracted like magnets, because most would do anything for a close encounter with the flippered kind. I have seen whole families wade into the water in their Sunday best to swim with a solitary bottlenose dolphin called Dave (though she was a female) who made a beach in Kent her home range in the summer months of 2007. On peak days there were approximately 700 people on the beach and at least 40 within 3m of Dave in the water trying to touch her, grab her dorsal fin for a ride or interact otherwise with her.

These two examples are disturbance of wildlife at its best (or worst) and really shouldn’t happen, because it is against the law (the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to be exact), but sadly will, around the UK and elsewhere, as the summer holiday season kicks off and more people take to the water. Whales and dolphins are charismatic animals and people are delighted when they have the chance to encounter them closely, but they should follow some simple rules if they want to make sure that their presence does not present a major disturbance to the cetaceans. If you have your own pleasure craft, please:

  1. Do not approach dolphins, porpoises or whales directly; if you spot a group, slow down, keep a steady pace and do not change direction abruptly;
  2. Do not drive into a group of cetaceans, it’s better if you stay at least 50m away from them, turn off the engine of your craft and let them come to you;
  3. If they are bow riding, keep a steady pace and do not change directions abruptly;
  4. If there are calves, it is even more important to stay away and watch from a distance;
  5. Do not try to touch if cetaceans are close to the boat;
  6. Do not feed the cetaceans;
  7. Do not try to swim with them.

If you choose to go with a commercial wildlife operator, make sure they are WiSe (Wildlife Safe) accredited. The WiSe scheme is a voluntary UK standard for commercial marine wildlife watching. It aims to promote responsible wildlife watching through training, accreditation and awareness raising. See www.wisescheme.org for a list of participating operators to be sure your trip is fun, and safe for you and the dolphins. In the US, WDC is involved in a similar scheme called Dolphin SMART.

Dolphin at Chanonry Point, Scotland

Best though is if you watch from land, there are numerous locations around the UK where you will be able to spot dolphins, porpoises and whales from land. Contact WDC for more details.

If you see behaviour that you think a disturbance, please collect video or photographic evidence where possible, and report it to the nearest Wildlife Crime Officer or to the Police. Disturbance is a crime.