Boat owners have been reminded to stay clear of whales to ensure they remain within the law.
The Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (Paws) issued a warning after several incidents in Shetland were reported to it over the summer.
Scottish Natural Heritage marine adviser Karen Hall has asked Shetland’s boat owners to read up on the wildlife watching code. Her advice follows a spate of killer whale sightings over the past few months, with minke whales more likely to be seen at the moment.
But some eager wildlife watchers have been getting too close to the animals, potentially in breach of regulations introduced to protect them.
“Maintain a steady course and don’t approach too close,” said Ms Hall. “If you can, sit in neutral or turn your engine off and keep your distance. And no sudden changes in direction or speed.”
Whales, dolphins and porpoises are protected by law, meaning anyone who disturbs them – even if accidentally – commits an offence.
“Everybody nowadays has a smartphone or a good camera so I would not just want to put the blame on professional photographers,” said Ms Hall.
“I think interest [in wildlife spotting] has increased, particularly through social media sites and a lot of people being alerted to sightings.
“And in a place like Shetland with a lot of boat owners it’s relatively easy to see them,” she said.
However, the problem extends further than boats getting too close to wildlife.
“It’s the number of vessels, the speed people are going and whether you’re going through a group of animals or across their direction of travel,” said Ms Hall.
But alongside the concern for animal welfare, there is also the need to make sure boat owners themselves stay safe.
“We’re getting to the time of year where humpbacks can be seen so if you’re in a small boat and you’re getting close to a humpback you’re potentially putting yourself at risk – you don’t want to be interacting with large animals,” said Ms Hall.
Guidance on how to behave can be read in the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code.