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Watching dolphins from the beach in Scotland: WDC/Charlie Phillips
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Lockdown is lifting and the beach is calling – if you see a whale or dolphin how will you behave?

We have all become more aware of giving one another space and respecting social distancing. As we come out of lockdown, we may find we are not used to interacting with others in the way we used to. Some of us have even found comfort in no longer needing to take part in that awkward dance as we figure out if it’s a suitable situation for a hug!

Dolphins, whales and porpoises have also been experiencing quieter homes while we have been in lockdown and as we flock back to the coast, they need us to remember the importance of keeping our distance. That’s why we run a public awareness programme called ‘Rude to Intrude’ which aims to educate people having fun in our coastal waters about the need to behave responsibly and respectfully around dolphins, porpoises and whales.

You can enjoy the beautiful whales and dolphins in this video even if you can't get out to see them in the wild ...

On our doorstep

You’ve probably seen those Insta-friendly images of a lone paddleboarder gliding through a calm sea. But sitting in my living room, in lockdown in the north of Scotland, with scarf, hat, socks and the heating on and snow outside, this idyllic world seems far away and impossible. But in fact, the UK has some of the most spectacular sandy beaches that can be found anywhere, with crystal clear blue waters and 21 species of whales, dolphin and porpoise who call these waters their home, and as many as 30 who have been spotted here. A number of these species spend a lot of time in shallow coastal waters where there is ample opportunity for them to bump into us.

I work for WDC so you won’t be surprised to hear that I really enjoy spotting whales, dolphins and porpoises. I do most of my spotting from the shore with binoculars and have recorded 10 different species from my local coastline. I am also a water lover and don’t take much persuading to get out on the sea either on a kayak, stand-up paddleboard (SUP), surfboard or just for a swim, and on numerous occasions I have been lucky enough to be joined by dolphins and even a not-so-shy porpoise.

This is me on my paddleboard
This is me on my paddleboard

Common sense

It is such a magical experience to see these amazing creatures in the wild and sometimes it can be easy to get over excited and forget how to behave to make sure the encounter is positive for the dolphins too. When I am on my paddleboard and I see dolphins in the distance I get so excited I usually let out a squeal and must quickly remind myself to stay cool and follow the steps I know make this the best encounter.

My favourite bay to paddleboard from is a few miles away from where I live. I have to drag my board down a dirt track and climb down a steep cliff path, but the effort is worth it as the coastline is so dramatic with ancient dinosaur footprints, cool caves full of sea birds and even old Pictish carvings, and to top it off, the resident population of bottlenose dolphins regularly travels across the bay.

My magical dolphin moments

I am always on the lookout for flocks of feeding birds in the distance and a disturbance on the water, and when I see that slick dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water, I know the dolphins are about. My adrenaline pumps around my body making me a little shaky, so I always drop to my knees so I have the best control of the paddleboard. I stay where I am to enjoy watching them and figure out how the pod is behaving, I don’t approach them and stay 100 metres away from them. When watching them I have noticed that some dolphins prefer to keep their distance while others want to come and investigate. Because I do not approach them, move slowly, or stay where I am, it’s more often than not that the dolphins do approach me. I have been surrounded by dolphins on still days when there is not a breath of wind and all I can hear is the blows of the dolphins and the gentle splashes of water as they surface. One dolphin felt so comfortable with my presence he or she swam directly below my paddleboard while their friends passed by the front and back of my board. Sometimes these interactions are over quickly, but once the dolphins want to leave, it’s important to let them make that decision to leave and not to follow them.

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Keep it short and sweet

My interactions with dolphins have always been in areas where they are travelling so my presence has not stopped them being there for any length of time. Sometimes I see kayakers, paddleboarders or boats in areas such as Chanonry or Aberdeen Harbour or other important areas for feeding where dolphins like to spend hours in one spot. And in these areas our prolonged presence will impact their feeding. Here it’s really important not to approach them and not to stay too long, with a maximum time of 15 minutes. If other water users are in the area, continue on your path - you never know, the dolphins might catch you up if they want to interact.

It's not just bottlenose dolphins who can be seen in coastal waters, this humpback whale took this surfer by surprise on a cold October morning at Torry Battery in Aberdeen. The surfer did exactly the right thing - he didn’t approach the whales, took a few move waves and then left the area so the whale could feed in peace. It’s also important to be safe. Whales and dolphins are huge and powerful and being too close to them can put you in significant danger.

Surfer did the right thing when surprised by a humpback whale
Surfer did the right thing when surprised by a humpback whale

If you see someone behaving irresponsibly around a whale or dolphin or causing them to change their behaviour for example by leaving an area or hitting their tail repeatedly on the surface of the water or making lots of deep dives, please call the police on 101 and report it as a wildlife crime. It’s important to ask for an incident number too, to ensure the incident gets logged.

We are lucky to have such a beautiful coastline in the UK with plenty of opportunities to see dolphins, porpoises and whales. If you do encounter them, enjoy the magical experience but use your common sense, stay safe, make sure that it’s on their terms and remember that it’s rude to intrude.

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