The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has published guidance for the public on how act responsibly around marine life when you visit the coast.

Called the Marine and coastal wildlife code, it gives advice on how you can help to minimise disturbance to wildlife. 

You might see lots of different marine wildlife when you visit the coast in England. Marine wildlife includes everything from aquatic life to birds and other animals on the beaches and nearby cliffs. 

Sometimes other species visit the coastline from neighbouring waters. Use your best judgement to apply this guidance to those species, for example, you can apply advice about seals to visiting walruses. 

Be aware of how you could disturb wildlife 

You could disturb wildlife on land or at sea by: 

  • approaching, moving or touching the animal 
  • crowding, circling, separating or chasing 
  • feeding them 
  • making noise 
  • damaging or changing habitats 

Dogs could disturb and harm wildlife at the coast if they’re not kept under effective control. Follow the Countryside Code guidance on [how to control your dog] at the coast. 

If animals are repeatedly disturbed, it can: 

  • cause stress or injury which could lead to death 
  • displace them from their favoured habitats 
  • disrupt their behaviour, for example, migration, breeding, resting and feeding 
  • make them more vulnerable to predators 

Know when wildlife is most vulnerable 

Animals can be especially vulnerable during breeding seasons, in the winter and when they’re resting or moulting. 

Some places close or restrict access when marine wildlife is most vulnerable, for example, during breeding seasons. 

Check signs in the local area, they should tell you when and where there are access restrictions. The local council and harbour or port may be able to provide this information. 

Breeding seasons 

Breeding seasons for different species include: 

  • June to January for seals 
  • February to September for birds 
  • March to September for seahorses 
  • summer months for dolphins, whales and porpoises 
  • all year round for sharks, rays and skates 

If disturbed, animals may abandon their nests, their mates or their young. This could prevent breeding or leave young vulnerable to disturbance, predators and starvation. 

Wintering season 

The wintering season for many birds is between September and March. This is a time when they need to conserve energy and need lots of food. Moving away from things that disturb them uses up energy, making them more vulnerable at this time. Marine wildlife may not survive winter if they are repeatedly disturbed. 

Moulting season 

Many birds moult in the summer or early autumn. This means they shed their feathers so may not be able to fly away in response to disturbance. 

Seals moult between November and April, and in August. This means they spend more time on land to shed their old coats to grow new ones. Take extra care not to disturb resting seals, causing them to retreat to the water and waste energy. 

Basking sharkRecognise when you are disturbing marine wildlife 

Learning when animals might be uncomfortable with your presence can help you recognise when you need to move away and give them space. The following animal behaviours are examples you can use as a guide to help you recognise signs of disturbance. 

Birds reacting to disturbance might: 

  • fly, walk or run away from you 
  • flap their wings while standing or sitting 
  • attack to defend their territory 

Seals reacting to disturbance might: 

  • wake up to look directly at you 
  • move suddenly from their resting position 
  • stampede or suddenly dive into the water 
  • dive or swim away from you 

Dolphins, whales and porpoises reacting to disturbance might: 

  • slap the water with their flipper or tail 
  • dive, move away or come to the surface less 
  • group together or make unpredictable movements 

Sharks, rays or skates reacting to disturbance might: 

  • swim away or dive 
  • move suddenly from their resting position 

Turtles reacting to disturbance might: 

  • swim away or dive 
  • stand on their flippers to make itself look big  

Seahorses reacting to disturbance might: 

  • hold their head in a downward, chest hugging posture 
  • turn their back, curl up, lie flat or swim away 
  • darken their colouring, especially in the squares around their body ridges 

Act responsibly around wildlife at the coast 

Give wildlife plenty of space. Try to stay at least 100 metres (330 feet) away, if not, you should leave as much space as you can. It is also best not to approach animals head-on or from directly behind. 

Move further away if you think the animal is showing signs of disturbance. 

Do not: 

  • chase, follow or harass wildlife 
  • feed or touch wildlife 
  • make a lot of noise around wildlife 
  • get too close to wildlife to take a picture and avoid flash photography 

 You could use binoculars or a camera zoom to watch wildlife from a safe distance. 

Alex Mustard Seal snorkelling

How to behave around different species 

Different species can be vulnerable to certain behaviours. If you see a: 

  1. seal in the sea or close to shore, be aware it might want to come onto land to rest, digest, or feed their pups – follow advice in the Give Seals Space campaign from the Seal Alliance 
  2. seal pup on a beach, do not move it or chase it into the sea 
  3. shark, follow advice in the Shark Trust’s Basking Shark Code of Conduct – you can apply this to any shark 
  4. bird, follow advice in the RSPB Bird Watching Code 
  5. dolphin, whale or porpoise, do not pursue them or come close to them – follow advice in the Whale and Dolphin Conservation guidance 
  6. seahorse, do not touch them and follow advice in the Marine Management Organisation advice 

It is normal for young animals to be alone sometimes, as their parents will leave them while they rest, forage or hunt. 

Beach toys, other items and litter can cut or trap marine wildlife and cause injuries. Remember to put all litter in the bin and leave nothing behind. 

Alex Mustard Seahorse

Follow the Countryside Code 

The Countryside Code gives further advice on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. This includes: 

  • taking your litter home with you 
  • always keeping your dog in sight and on a lead 
  • picking up your dog’s waste 
  • only having BBQs where signs say you can and disposing of them responsibly 
  • not lighting fires 

Do not panic if marine wildlife approaches you 

Animals can be inquisitive and may approach you. If this happens, it’s best to stay calm and move away slowly. Remember that wild animals can harm you unintentionally, so it’s best not to touch the animal. 

Using drones 

You should not use a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) where you will disturb or endanger wildlife. Read the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s drone code for more advice. 

Use boats, jet skis and other vessels responsibly 

Boats, personal watercrafts - including jet skis, and other motorised water vehicles create noise above and below the water, which can disturb wildlife. They can also injure wildlife, so it’s important to follow guidance on how to use them. 

When using a boat, jet ski or other motorised water vehicle, you should: 

  • slow down if you notice an animal – they may not have time to move away from fast watercraft 
  • stay under 6 knots (no-wake speed) around marine wildlife 
  • stay 100 metres (330 feet) away from marine wildlife 
  • slowly move further away if you notice signs of disturbance 
  • keep your distance if there are already more than 2 boats or watercraft nearby 

Sometimes dolphins, whales and porpoises approach boats to surf the waves they make. To keep them safe, it is best to maintain a steady speed and direction and let the animals leave when they choose. 

Launch or moor your boat or craft correctly 

Always use designated launch points for boats or jet skis. Most launch points are signposted and will display local rules. You can also check designated launch points at the local council, harbour or port. 

You should: 

  • use existing mooring buoys where available 
  • follow advice in the green guide if you need to anchor, this will avoid drag and damage to the seabed 

You can read the Green Blue’s Boating Pledge for further best boating practice. 

Maintain your engine to reduce noise 

Keep your engine and propellers in good condition to reduce underwater noise. 

Follow the rules for owning a boat

Enjoy water activities without harming wildlife 

Water activities include: 

  • swimming and paddling 
  • snorkelling and diving 
  • surfing, including kitesurfing, windsurfing and foil surfing 
  • paddleboarding 
  • kayaking and canoeing 

When you go into the sea, take care not to disturb wildlife or damage their habitats. You can do this by entering the sea on open stretches of beach, between lifeguard flags or by using designated slipways. 

Avoid entering or leaving the sea through sensitive habitats, including: 

  • areas where marine species are resting, feeding, breeding or nesting 
  • saltmarshes 
  • mudflats 
  • maerl beds 
  • seagrass 

If you’ve got a small craft, such as a kayak, paddleboard or surfboard, carrying it to the sea rather than dragging it will prevent damage to sensitive habitats. 

Paddle craft users can read the Paddler’s Code for guidance to help you enjoy our waterways responsibly. 

If you are diving, fasten your hoses or gauges to you. This will stop them catching onto or dragging through underwater habitats. 

Some animals sleep underwater and at the surface. This is common behaviour and should not be a cause for concern. 

Plan your visit to the coast 

The Countryside Code gives helpful advice on how to plan a trip, stay safe and protect the environment. 

You can check tide times before you visit the coast to reduce the risk of getting cut off by rising tides. 

Find an accredited wildlife watching tour 

Boat tours are a great way to see wildlife. Make sure you use a responsible tour company who will protect marine wildlife. 

Look for the WiSe scheme logo or find a Wildlife Safe (WiSe) accredited operator in the UK. 

Report a wildlife crime 

Wildlife crimes include intentional or reckless harassment, injuring, disturbance, or taking or killing protected species or damaging their habitat. Find out how wildlife legislation in England protects different marine wildlife species

Call 101 to report a wildlife incident that’s already happened, or for all other enquiries. 

If you suspect a wildlife crime in action, call 999. 

The police may ask you: 

  • what happened 
  • where the incident happened, for example a local landmark, What 3 Words or National Grid Reference 
  • when the incident happened, including the date and time 
  • who was involved, for example, how many people, what they wore and if they had dogs or equipment 
  • the make, colour and registration numbers of any vehicles or boats 
  • if you took any photographs or videos - only take these if it is safe 

Report an injured, distressed or dead animal 

If you see an animal that is injured, distressed, stranded or entangled, do not approach it, touch it or attempt to return it to the sea. 

Report the incident by calling: 

  • British Divers Marine Life Rescue hotline on 01825 765546 for whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, turtles and sharks 
  • RSPCA (England and Wales) on 0300 1234 999 

Report a dead bird or large marine animal 

It is not safe to touch dead birds or other animals. You do not know why they died, and you could spread disease. Large animals could also put you at risk of injury. 

Report large marine animals that you find dead or floating at sea to the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) on 0800 652 0333 (England and Wales). This includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sharks and marine turtles. 

They’ll want to know the: 

  • location of the dead animal, for example a local landmark, What 3 Words or National Grid Reference 
  • date you found it 
  • species, if you know 

They may ask you to send a photo of the animal so they can identify it. 

You should use the online service to report dead wild birds if you find: 

  • 1 or more dead birds of prey (such as an owl, hawk or buzzard) 
  • 3 or more dead birds that include at least 1 gull, swan, goose or duck 
  • 5 or more dead wild birds of any species 

Get training in how to avoid marine wildlife disturbance 

The Wildlife Safe (WiSe) Scheme is the UK national training scheme for minimising disturbance to marine wildlife. 

The WiSe Scheme offers courses that are aimed at: 

  • wildlife cruise operators 
  • dive and service boats 
  • yacht skippers and sea kayakers 
  • people participating in coasteering, stand-up paddle boarding and swimming 


For more information on the Marine and coastal wildlife code, visit

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