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Environment Minister backs WDC public awareness drive to prevent dolphin disturbance

Dolphin disturbance

We are advising members of the public not to risk legal action by disturbing dolphins when lockdown ends this Easter and holiday makers flock to the UK’s coastline - a call that has been backed by Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow and the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU).

Whilst we have been locked in as a result of the pandemic nature has reclaimed its spaces, and whales, dolphins and porpoises will have been enjoying quieter waters around the UK.

But, as this lockdown ends and visits to the coast surge, WDC fears that dolphin disturbance incidents in the waters around the UK involving members of the public using leisure craft, jetskis, kayaks and paddleboards could increase. Of particular concern is the lack of awareness of the existing laws around disturbance by people using these craft, or who attempt to jump in and swim with dolphins in the sea.

Marine mammals are sensitive to disturbance, especially when they have young, are resting, feeding or socialising. Human disturbance can frighten them and scare them away from important habitats, and in extreme cases, injury or kill them. Giving marine wildlife space is important, watch them from a good distance and don’t crowd them.

Incidents are thought to be much higher because many boat users and holiday makers simply do not know what the rules are or how to report incidents they witness.

Surprisingly, the only region where incidences of disturbance are recorded to the appropriate level of detail currently is in Cornwall, where 193 incidences were reported to the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group hotline in according to most recent data*.

Prosecutions are rare, yet disturbance is a regular occurrence where the waters are busy and coastal wildlife is most accessible. WDC staff and volunteers regularly witness disturbance first-hand and receive many reports from concerned marine wildlife enthusiasts, which has prompted the awareness drive.

‘Our key aim is to stop disturbance before it happens by raising awareness of the issues’, says WDC’s Katie Dyke.

‘UK seas are a special place for dolphins and whales, being home to 21 species, more than anywhere else in northern Europe. They are also a rapidly growing destination for marine recreation and tourism, which is increasing levels of disturbance. Many species are seen close to shore and disturbance happens when people get too near to marine wildlife, disrupt their natural behaviours and cause them stress.’

Katie Dyke continues; ‘People can be unaware of how to behave around them, so most disturbance is unintentional. A good encounter is one that is enjoyable for you and the whales or dolphins.’

Whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively called cetaceans) which frequent our coastline are protected under the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1994. This includes protection from disturbance (whether it be reckless or deliberate), harassment, killing and injury, with offences subject to a fine of up to £5000.

Chief Inspector Kevin Kelly, head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit says: ‘‘Give marine mammals space to exhibit natural behaviour in their natural environment without harassment or disturbance.  Keep your distance, show respect and be responsible.’

Rebecca Pow MP, Environment Minister, said: ‘Disturbance can have devastating impacts on marine mammals up and down our coastline, including dolphins. WDC is doing great work to raise awareness amongst the public, to help us all play our part in protecting these wonderful species. I urge all of those visiting the coast to familiarise themselves with the guidance, and help protect them.’

Colin Speedie, Wildlife Safe (WiSe) trainer and disturbance expert, adds: ‘With so many people now visiting our coasts, accidental disturbance of dolphins and other marine will undoubtedly occur. That’s why checking out and adhering to our suggested guidelines when you go out on the water will help to ensure that your marine life encounters will cause no harm.’

Public information on this issue can be found here:

All suspected cases of disturbance should be reported to the police on: 101. Tell the operator that you are reporting a wildlife crime and ask for an incident number to ensure that reports can be tracked. Tell the operator as much information as possible, including:

  • the date, time and location of the disturbance
  • the behaviour of any vessels and of the whales and dolphins before, during and after the event
  • if possible, the species involved
  • the duration of the interaction
  • any identifying features of the people or vessel involved, such as the boat name and the clothes worn. 

*Data from -


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