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Protecting Cornwall’s marine life

With five million people flocking to Cornwall on holiday each year, the county’s marine life is under pressure as more and more people come into contact with wildlife through coastal activities, from sea safaris and snorkelling to rockpooling — even walking along the coast path can have an impact. Cornwall’s Marine and Coastal Code Group has created a set of visitor guidelines to help protect Cornwall’s marine life, including how to observe wildlife safely, how to avoid disturbing wildlife on the coast and how to report any disturbance or harassment they might see.

The guidelines

Whether you’re spending time by the coast, out on the sea on a kayak or submerged in it on a diving trip, the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group‘s guidelines will help you to know what to do if you encounter wildlife, particularly species you haven’t come into contact with before. Follow these simple guidelines to help you make the most of your wildlife encounters in Cornwall.

Learn — Find out as much as you can about what wildlife you might see and the best way to interact
See — Make sure you’re alert whilst out and about
Respect — Act appropriately and aim to leave wildlife as you found it
Report — Report any sightings or disturbance you see

Give animals SPACE and TIME

Try to watch wildlife unseen — use binoculars to avoid the need to get too close, and never follow, chase, feed or touch wild animals. If you’re with dogs, keep the lead handy and make sure they’re kept under control at all times.

  • Look for signs you’ve been spotted by wildlife and avoid actions that scare, startle or panic them
  • Avoid large groups and mothers with young
  • If you decide to move closer, approach side on, around the outside making sure the animals have a clear escape route
  • Leave wildlife and the environment as you found it

Out and about

Whether you’re exploring rockpools with children, watching seabirds nurturing their chicks on the coast or are diving beneath the waves, it’s important to know how to interact with any wildlife you come across. If you’re on the coast path, be very careful where you are putting your feet to avoid crushing burrows or eggs, and avoid trampling on vegetation. If you’re out on the water, make sure your craft’s movements are constant, steady and predictable. 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.

If you’re in the water, whether you’re swimming, snorkelling or diving, chances are you’ll come into contact with wildlife at some point. 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.

Wildlife encounters

Seals

Seals have become a major tourist attraction for Cornwall (the county has 38% of the world’s seal population) but sudden noise and movements or getting too close can startle seals. Seals stampeding to the sea may injure themselves — pregnant females (Nov-Feb) may fatally injure unborn pups.

  • Mothers disturbed when feeding their pups may escape to the water leading to under nourished pups who may not survive their first winter, or a mother may be forced to abandon her pup altogether
  • 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

Birds

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 during the colder months. 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, even knocking eggs or chicks into the sea. Agitated birds will raise their heads, bunch together, and sound alarm calls.

  • 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

Dolphins, porpoises and whales

These animals appear along Cornwall’s coastline and out at sea, particularly bottlenose dolphins, which are often spotted feeding and socialising near the shore. Clear signs to move away include increased swimming speed, protective behaviour, or aggressive actions.

  • Change speed or direction or use sonar near them — engine noise can interfere with their echo-location and communication
  • If unexpectedly close, slow down, stop, and put the engine in neutral to prevent injuries

Basking sharks and turtles

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. Five of the seven turtle species have been spotted in Cornish waters, including adult leatherback turtles, usually in late summer and autumn when the sea temperature is at its peak.

  • Avoid groups of basking whales or disrupting them during courtship and areas of breaching
  • If unexpectedly close, slow down, stop, or put the engine in neutral to prevent propeller injuries
  • Both species are at risk from marine litter, particularly plastic bags and fishing gear — ingesting plastics can block their digestive system and pose severe risks to their wellbeing.

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

Find out how we’re inspiring better holidays by helping visitors to have more responsible, lower impact holidays in Cornwall