Environmental organisation Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has voiced concern about “inappropriate behaviour” by members of the public in boats when a pod of more than 20 pilot whales appeared in Lerwick harbour.
SNH officer Karen Hall said some boats had gone far too near the mammals, driven through the pod or changed speed and direction very suddenly at close proximity.
The pod, which was first spotted at around 7.20am on Saturday by port control, spent most of the day swimming around the harbour between the North Ness and Heogan and Gardie in Bressay, to the delight of nature enthusiasts.
A group of people gathered on Victoria Pier and at various other locations along the coastline to watch them before they disappeared at around 4.45pm.
Ms Hall said: “All cetaceans are European protected species and are heavily protected against a variety of offences including deliberate or reckless disturbance.”
She said several photographs and videos of people in boats acting irresponsibly, and in a manner which could be construed as an offence, have been received by SNH.
Ms Hall said that advice from the Scottish marine wildlife watching code includes staying at least 100m away from the animals, or more if there are young present, and there were calves present in Saturday’s group; reducing speed as you approach and making sure your movements are steady and predictable; and letting the animals decide how close they want you to be.
If you see signs of disturbance, for example spy hopping, when the animal brings its upper body out of the water to “spy” at its surroundings, or bunching together, both of which were seen on Saturday, move away and take an alternative route.
Do not cut off an animal or group of animals by moving across their path and if the animals decide to approach you to “bowride”, or surf and play in the waves directly behind a boat, then maintain a steady speed and course where possible.
Care should also be taken to make sure the animals are not surrounded by boats or boxed in to the coastline.
Ms Hall said: “Everyone wants a good photo, and people might not realise that they are in fact too close to the animals and will perhaps causing distress.
“We appreciate that it’s exciting but in a few months it will be killer whale and dolphin spotting season and so we’d like to remind people now so that if this happens again they will be aware of how to act.”
She said that pilot whales are usually spotted offshore but due to Shetland’s location there are often sightings closer to shore. They are fairly common although they have not been seen locally for a few years.
They are known as “caain” whales in Shetland and have been exploited in the past.