Protecting Cornwall's marine life

Each year, about five million people flock to Cornwall on holiday, with the vast majority staying by the coast so they can make the most of the stunning marine environment and coastal wildlife. Whilst this might be good news for tourism, Cornwall’s coast and marine life is under more pressure than ever as more and more people come into contact with local wildlife.

Cornwall’s Marine and Coastal Code Group aims to reduce this ever increasing impact on the marine environment and has released a set of guidelines to help visitors discover what they can do to help, including how to observe wildlife safely, how to avoid disturbing wildlife on the coast and how to report any wildlife disturbance or harassment they might see.


By the coast

Whether you’re watching seabirds nurturing their chicks or exploring the miniature universe of a rockpool, follow these guidelines to help minimise your impact on wildlife:

  • Aim to watch wildlife unseen — be cautious and quiet
  • Use binoculars to avoid the need to get close and make sure the automatic flash is off on your camera.
  • Make any approach steady, predictable and non-direct
  • Be very careful where you are putting your feet to avoid crushing burrows, eggs or animals
  • Be prepared to back off or take an alternative route if wildlife has seen you
  • If you’re in a group, make sure the wildlife doesn’t get surrounded and has an escape route
  • Do not chase, feed or touch wild animals
  • Move stones in rock pools with care
  • Avoid trampling on vegetation that might increase the chance of erosion and take all litter home
  • Keep dogs under control

On the sea

Although encounters with wildlife may be distant and brief, this approach is beneficial for marine life. Stay vigilant, and if you spot wildlife, discreetly signal others to share the experience.

  • Use binoculars to get a better view and to avoid the need to get too close; us zooms on cameras and flashes should be off
  • Avoid breeding sites or large groups of animals and allow them to stay together as you found them and make sure they have a wide escape route
  • If you’re on the water, make sure your craft’s movements are constant, steady and predictable
  • Stay a good distance away and choose indirect, side on approaches and departures
  • Put your boat in neutral if an animal gets close
  • Think about engine/propeller noise and echo sounds and carry rather than drag craft to the sea
  • Be aware that a silent approach may startle wildlife more if you wake them up
  • Never follow, chase or feed marine life

In the sea

If you’re in the water diving, snorkelling, surfing or swimming, chances are you’ll come into contact with wildlife at some point. Refer to these guidelines to help you avoid disturbing animals at sea:

  • Keep a good look out on the surface and underwater and let any wildlife encounter be on their terms
  • Never feed wild marine animals
  • Make sure your movements are steady and predictable and be prepared to move out of the animal’s way in good time
  • If an animal in the water has chosen to approach you, be calm, move slowly and predictably
  • Take care with your feet or fins as some species are very sensitive to physical damage and keep good control of your buoyancy if diving or snorkelling to avoid touching the seabed or smothering it in clouds of sand or mud
  • If you use flash for photos, limit the number of photos you take and never shine it directly at the animal
  • Snorkelling, diving or swimming with large marine mammals and basking sharks is not recommended. If you decide to, or encounter them by chance, follow the relevant guidance


Cornwall’s coastline provides both food and safe resting spots for birds, many of which come here to breed from February to July or overwinter here. They need year-round safe places to rest and feed, and appropriate breeding grounds in cliffs, burrows and along beaches and estuaries above the high tide line.

  • Scared birds may leave nests vulnerable to chilling and predator attacks, even knocking eggs or chicks into the sea.
  • Startled birds may waste energy, making them more susceptible to predators and disease. Avoid getting too close, sudden movements, and loud noises.
  • Indicators of being noticed by birds: heads up, bunching together, alarm calls, and visible agitation.
  • Keep your distance from seabird nesting sites (at least 50-300m for sensitive species) and avoid lingering during breeding seasons.
  • Respect feeding and roosting areas, especially in bays, estuaries, and marshes during autumn and winter
  • Control dogs to prevent them from chasing or disturbing birds.


With 38% of the world’s seal population, it’s no surprise that seals have become a major tourist attraction for Cornwall but sudden noise and movements or getting too close can startle seals.

  • Raised stress levels in seals makes them more vulnerable to illness and disease
  • Seals stampeding to the sea may injure themselves on sharp rocks
  • Seals that are regularly disturbed at a haul out may stop using that site, reducing the areas available to breed.
  • Pregnant females trying to escape over rocks can fatally injure unborn babies
  • Mothers disturbed when feeding their pups may escape to the water leading to under nourished pups who may not survive their first winter. A mother may be forced to abandon her pup altogether
  • Repeated human proximity can have chronic welfare implications for seals.
  • Try to admire from a distance, keep clear of large groups and mums with pups, and if seals approach you in the water, stay calm and avoid actions that might scare them.

Dolphins, porpoises and whales

These animals frequently appear along Cornwall’s coastline and out at sea, particularly bottlenose dolphins, which are often spotted feeding and socialising near the shore.

  • Don’t get too close, change speed or direction or use sonar near them — engine noise can interfere with their echo-location and communication
  • Signs their in distress include erratic movements, changes in diving behaviour and increased vocalisation
  • Clear signs to move away include increased swimming speed, protective behaviour, or aggressive actions.
  • Keep your distance from groups and mothers with young; allow encounters on their terms, ideally staying close if they choose
  • If unexpectedly close, slow down, stop, and put the engine in neutral to prevent injuries
  • Approach from a distance, at a steady, slow speed
  • Human interaction can disrupt communication and energy levels, making animals more susceptible to disease and predators

Basking sharks

The UK’s largest fish (and the world’s second largest), basking sharks may grow up to 11m long but are mostly placid creatures found around Cornwall’s coast in the spring and summer when they feed close to the surface. You’ll know if you’ve been spotted as basking sharks will make sudden dives or swift tail movement — if you see this, you should move away. Follow these guidelines around basking sharks:

  • Avoid groups of whales or disrupting them during courtship and areas of breaching
  • Do not swim towards or try to touch the sharks
  • Encounters should be on the shark’s terms — if unexpectedly close, slow down, stop, or put the engine in neutral to prevent propeller injuries
  • Regular disturbances, especially during breeding and feeding times, can affect their health and long-term survival


Although turtles generally find Cornwall’s waters too cold, five of the seven turtle species have been spotted in the waters surrounding the UK and Ireland, including adult leatherback turtles, usually in late summer and autumn when the sea temperature is at its peak.

  • Actions like getting too close can startle them, causing them to dive.
  • Signs of being spotted are often seen when they suddenly dive.
  • To avoid disturbance, be cautious when encountering large numbers of jellyfish in late summer and autumn.
  • Disturbance can deplete turtles’ energy and hinder their feeding or resting, especially when following an influx of jellyfish.
  • Turtles are already in decline and need extra care,and are at risk from marine litter, particularly plastic bags and fishing gear. Ingesting plastics, mistaking them for jellyfish, can block their digestive system and pose severe risks to their wellbeing.
What you can do

Learn – See – Respect – Report

Follow these simple guidelines to from the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code to help you make the most out of your encounters with wildlife in Cornwall.

Learn — Find out as much as you can about what wildlife you might see and the best way to interact with it. This will help you improve your chances of great sightings.

See — Make sure you’re alert whilst out and about.

Respect — Act appropriately and aim to leave wildlife as you found it.
Report — See the big picture. Understand that our coastal and marine wildlife has numerous encounters with people. Tell us about your sighting and any disturbance you see.

Give animals SPACE and TIME

When wildlife watching, animals need to be given space and time:

  • Expect the unexpected – be alert and get prepared
  • Observe from a distance – use binoculars if you can
  • Look for signs you’ve been spotted by wildlife and avoid actions that scare, startle or panic them
  • Large groups and mothers with young are best avoided completely
  • If you decide to move closer, approach side on, around the outside making sure the animals have a clear escape route
  • Be patient and wait downwind, move predictably, steadily and slowly
  • Be calm and quiet while you enjoy your encounter
  • Be considerate, back off and move on to keep your encounter brief
  • Leave wildlife and the environment as you found it

How to report wildlife sightings and disturbances

Here’s what to do if you come across a suspected wildlife crime or disturbance

  • If you see a suspected wildlife crime in action, call 999 immediately and ask for the police
  • If you see wildlife being disturbed, call 0345 201 26 26
  • If you come across a sick or injured animal, call British Divers Marine Life Rescue 01825 765546
  • If you find a dead marine animal (including seabirds), make sure you do not touch it and call the Marine Strandings Network on 0345 201 26 26