Porpoises, whales, dolphins, sturgeon… any of these within three miles of the UK coast technically belong to Queen Elizabeth II, and she’ll have you in the Tower for a swift height-reduction operation if you bother them. Well, maybe the punishment isn’t really that extreme – but anyone who harasses, injures or kills a cetacean in British waters does face a fine of up to £5,000, whether they do it accidentally or, ahem, on porpoise.

Anyone who uses the water has some responsibility towards marine wildlife. With sailors and others getting back on the water, the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) has launched a campaign to remind the public that it is illegal to disturb some wildlife. All water users should behave according to guidelines when around marine life, and are urged to report anyone creating a disturbance.

Katie Dyke, of WDC, said: “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 behaviour and cause them stress.

“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”.

Disturbing marine mammals, especially when they are resting, feeding, socialising or with their young, can not only frighten them away. It might even result in injury or death.

That’s not to say that sailors and others should avoid dolphins and other marine wildlife protected by the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations of 1994. The following guidelines are designed to protect both the animals and water users:

  1. Keep your distance
  2. Approach carefully, from behind and to the side
  3. Don’t stay longer than 15 minutes. If dolphins choose to stay with your boat for longer, that’s up to them
  4. Consider whether your visit might add to an already stressful day for the animals
  5. Don’t make sudden changes in speed or course
  6. Don’t approach directly from ahead or behind
  7. Don’t steer between groups
  8. Don’t single out one animal for repeated observation
  9. Don’t chase any marine animals
  10. Don’t trap any animals between boats, or between boats and shore
  11. Don’t swim with, feed or touch any marine animals

The WDC campaign is supported by the National Wildlife Crime Unit, the WISE scheme, UK Environment Minister Rebecca Pow, and others. Any suspected cases of disturbance can be reported to the police by calling 101 and stating that you a reporting a wildlife crime. Remember to give information about the date, time and place of the suspected offence, details of the disturbing behaviour, and boat name/description, or description of the people involved.

So what is the Queen’s role in all this? There is a law from the 14th century that allows the monarch to claim any “fishes royal” caught within three miles of the coast, or that are washed up on UK shores. Technically, anyone landing sturgeon can sell the fish. However, the purchaser must then offer it to the Queen via the Receiver of Wreck, who will generally decline the offer.

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