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Marine tourism and keeping dolphins safe

We use the waters around the UK commercially and for fun. But all this human activity can cause harm to whales and dolphins.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises need to feed, rest, socialise and reproduce to stay healthy and to keep their populations strong.  If you get too close to these activities, you might unwittingly cause changes to an individual's breathing, hamper their ability to feed or stop them getting the rest that they need. Human disturbance can even drive whales and dolphins away from the places that are important to them.

We invited Rebecca Walker, senior marine mammal specialist for Natural England, to tell you about some work she’s been doing to figure out how we can keep whales and dolphins safe while still enjoying the water, and how we’re working together to try to implement some of her ideas.

Rebecca Walker is a senior marine mammal specialist for Natural England
Rebecca Walker is a senior marine mammal specialist for Natural England

We humans love getting out on the water for fun and recreation. We might enjoy boating, kayaking, jet-skiing or wildlife watching. It’s an added bonus when these activities allow us to see whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. While experiencing these creatures in their natural environment is an amazing experience, we do risk causing them harm. If we

Last year, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to investigate how other countries manage the impacts that humans have on wild whales and dolphins and other marine mammals when they are out on the water. I applied for the Fellowship as, in the course of my day job, I was continually hearing about instances of marine mammal disturbance across England, and thought the Fellowship would give me a great opportunity to learn what other countries are doing to address this issue and bring back some examples of best practice.

Why should we care?

Disturbance is a real problem and is known to cause a range of reactions in the dolphins and other mammals it affects, including avoidance of boats, changes in behaviour, increased respiration rates, or an increase in vigilance. Such reactions can lead to decreases in foraging rates or an increase in flushing rates (fleeing) from seal haul-out sites (where seals come onto land to rest, breed/pup or moult), with unknown consequences for those individuals, but potentially leading to a decrease in their long term health, abandonment of pups or a decline in abundance.

Jet skis disturbing dolphins in Poole Bay, UK
Jet skis disturbing dolphins in Poole Bay, UK

What measures are already in place to help?

The EU Habitats Directive does provide some protection from harassment or disturbance of marine mammals. However, other than in Scotland, where legislation exists to protect seals at designated sites, there are no specific legislation, regulation or licence requirements for commercial wildlife watching operations or recreational activities to prevent marine mammal disturbance in the UK.

Voluntary guidelines and codes of conduct do exist and there is a national scheme (WiSe) which aims to promote responsible wildlife watching through training, accreditation and awareness-raising of boat operators. However, none of these measures are required to operate a vessel nor are any enforceable by law.

What do we need?

During my travels, I wrote a blog detailing my meetings and discussions in both South Africa and Canada. Now I’m back, I’ve written up a report, with 25 recommendations on a way forward. My recommendations fall into six main themes:

  • Legislation and regulations,
  • Licensing (known as permitting in South Africa and Canada),
  • Enforcement,
  • Education,
  • Whale watch associations and
  • Other initiatives.


My study convinced me that regulations are essential. Regulations are clear and unambiguous in terms of what is allowed or not, and make voluntary codes of conduct enforceable and standardised.


I also came to the conclusion that permitting works. It can provide a control on the number of vessels allowed in an area and / or the number of hours spent with wildlife, to ensure watching is sustainable. Regulations provide clarity on what is allowed. However, enforcement is essential, otherwise there is little point in implementing regulations or permitting.


The role of education was more significant than I realised, both for skippers and guides as well as for the general public. There are also benefits to having national and / or regional whale watch associations: a coordinated voice to government to communicate concerns and facilitate compliance and the positive impacts of sustainable wildlife watching. Lastly, there were various other initiatives I discovered, which could be looked at to help reduce marine wildlife disturbance such as Blue Flag accreditation for responsible boat operators.

What next?

I plan to work closely with the UK Government, conservation agencies and organisations such as WDC to start looking at ways of taking my recommendations forward. One useful avenue will be within the UK’s ‘Dolphin and Porpoise Conservation Strategy’ which is currently being developed by the Government and which WDC is inputting to. The strategy has a range of actions, one of which concerns wildlife tourism, giving me an ideal opportunity to feed in some of my findings. I have also been working with WDC to raise awareness of the disturbance issue and will be looking at more ways to continue my involvement in the future, showing how it is possible for conservation agencies and NGOs to work together to make a big difference in marine mammal management and protection.

The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.

About Julia Pix

Communications manager - Public Engagement

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