30 March 2023

Codes of Conduct 2013

Whale and Dolphin Watching Guidlines 2013

Nic Slocum and the Whale Watch West Cork team have spent many years reviewing  codes of conduct for boat based interactions with cetaceans from around the globe.

We have compiled the most comprehensive Code of Conduct for the interaction between boats and cetaceans in Irish waters. This Code of Conduct is reviewed every year and updated where necessary based on first hand experience of the interactions we have each year with the many species we encounter off West Cork with Whale Watch West Cork and abroad with Whales Worldwide.

Nic Slocum has been watching whales and dolphins from boats for over 25 years and has been running Whale Watch West Cork for nearly 10 years. He runs overseas whale watching tours to Baja, Maui and Patagonia and is an outspoken advocate of responsible and sustainable whale and dolphin watching. He is the Chairman of the Steering Committee of The Responsible Whale Watching Partnership

Little is known about the nature of human cetacean interaction and unregulated exposure to whale watching tourism may have a detrimental impact on cetaceans. There is no mechanism in place in Irish southern coastal waters to monitor the impact of whale and dolphin watching operations on either migratory or resident animals. This requires whale watch operators to maintain very rigid standards and adopt a highly responsible mode of operation in order to reduce negative impact to a minimum.


Whale Watching Guidelines…

Version 2013

As the more responsible protagonists within the global industry have expressed the need for a more formal approach to the development of whale watching activities, a plethora of guidelines for the interaction of boats and cetaceans have been produced, many of them only voluntary. Some, like those in Ireland, have been incorporated into a formal publication. This requires commercial and recreational boat users operating in Irish waters to adhere to a minimum set of guidelines when they encounter whales or dolphins.

Educational Value of Whale Watching…

Whale Watch West Cork is committed to the educational value of whale and dolphin watching in enabling the sharing of the wider marine conservation message with as many people as possible, especially the young. We also provide a platform for research and the gathering of routine information that will help in the wider understanding of whales and dolphins in Irish waters.

Responsible Whale Watching…

Whale Watch West Cork is a “RESPONSIBLE” whale and dolphin watch operator who strongly adheres to the statutory guidelines. However, following many years of whale and dolphin watching from boats we believe these guidelines to be insufficient at the species level. Whale Watch West Cork has conducted an assessment of both statutory and voluntary guidelines and codes of conduct around the globe and reviewed the findings of our own research. As a result we have developed a Code of Conduct that incorporates the Irish statutory guidelines as set out in Marine Notice 15 of 2005 but also includes that which we judge to be a minimum requirement for the interaction of boats and cetaceans at the species level in Irish waters. As we gather more information and make further conclusions from our research we will adjust our Code of Conduct accordingly.

Code of Conduct for Recreational and Commercial Boats when Interacting with Cetaceans in Irish Waters

1) When whales or dolphins are first encountered, craft should maintain a steady course.

  • When practical stop the vessel or assume a “no wake speed” to determine whether they are feeding, travelling or prospecting for food. Assess what direction they may be moving in. Never cross the path of cetaceans attempting to cut them off or anticipate their moves. This applies to all species encountered.
  • Never approach animals at 90 degrees to individual animals or groups or head on or directly from behind. This applies to all species. Common and bottlenose dolphins will however, frequently approach boats of their own volition from a head on position and boats should be brought to a standstill until they have engaged.

2) Boat speed should be maintained below 7 knots.

  • We recommend all boat interactions with cetaceans to be carried out at tick over or “no wake” speed or less. A “no wake speed” is usually around 4 knots.
  • Ensure propeller revolutions are reduced to a minimum. This is very important with unguarded propellers. Particularly important when some dolphin species engage the boat.
  • When leaving the field of interaction to a distance of at least 400 meters boat speeds should be no more than 5 knots.
  • NEVER make rapid accelerations TOWARDS or AWAY from cetaceans however far away they may be.

3) Do not attempt to pursue whales or dolphins encountered.

  • Marine mammals should NEVER be pursued under ANY circumstances. This applies to ALL species.
  • Never split up groups of cetaceans. If you find yourself inadvertently in this position stop the boat and remain stationary with engine ticking over until the animals have moved away. This applies to all species.

4) In the case of dolphins, they will very often approach craft and may engage in bow riding. Always allow dolphins to approach a boat rather than attempt to go after them.

  • If dolphins engage voluntarily and bow ride be very vigilant, especially for young and adolescent animals as they may be less experienced than adult animals around boat bows, keels and propellers.
  • If there is any swell on the water and dolphins are bow riding always attempt to travel downwind or in the same direction as the wave train to avoid rapid “up and down” bow movements associated with heading into wind and waves.

5) Maintain a distance of at least 100m from whales.

  • Our research findings strongly indicate that 100 meters is often close enough to influence feeding behaviour patterns in both minke and fin whales. We therefore maintain distances of 150 meters during minke and fin whale interactions in order to minimize disturbance unless animals pass closer to the boat of their own accord during engine off “passive” viewing.

6) Maintain a distance of 200m between any other boats in the vicinity.

  • With minke and fin whales we try to establish at least 3-400 meters distance between whale watching craft when more than one boat is present during an interaction and encourage other boats to do the same.

7) Attempt to steer a course parallel to the direction whales or dolphins are taking.

  • With some dolphin species, especially the common dolphin, they will frequently actively engage the boat and bow ride to the front and side. Always travel in the same direction the animals were moving in when encountered. Extra vigilance should be exercised if very young and adolescent animals are present.
  • Never make sharp, sudden alterations to course when dolphins are bow riding.

8) Do not corral whales or dolphins between boats.

  • If this inadvertently happens due to the whale’s movements the boats should be stopped in the water with engines at tick over until animals have moved away.

9) Special care must be taken when young calves are seen – do not come between a mother and her calf.

10) Successive boats must follow the same course.

  • All approaches to a viewing area when another boat is present should be on the side opposite to any animals present. If there is any doubt use your radio and talk to the other boat/s.

11) Boats should not spend more than 30 minutes with whales or dolphins.

  • If there are two boats present at fin or minke whale interactions we recommend time limits of 15 minutes with an individual or group. We do the same in the presence of all dolphin species. In the case of engine off “passive” encounters we may remain in the field of interaction for up to 30 minutes if the animals remain in the area of their own accord.
  • During common dolphin interactions we limit interaction as follows: Traveling groups with young and adolescents and groups of feeding adults 15-20 minutes. Feeding groups with young and adolescent animals 10-15 minutes.
  • All boats should limit their cumulative time within an area in which whales or dolphins are present or thought to be present, to 30% of the scheduled tour time. This would be around 75 minutes for a scheduled tour of four hours in length.
  • All boats should stick rigidly to time limits. This will reduce the cumulative impact of many vessels on animals present and demonstrate consideration to other viewers, the environment and ABOVE ALL, the whales and dolphins being viewed.

12) DO NOT attempt to swim with cetaceans

  • Never attempt to touch animals or feed them.
  • Never encourage the boat Captain to get closer to animals and dissuade others from doing so politely. The best whale watch operators are those who abide by a very strict code of conduct and are thoughtful of the animal welfare issues and the environment. They are frequently those who have the best sightings.
  • Make as little noise as possible when you are in the presence of cetaceans. Sound travels furthest through water and can sound very loud to aquatic animals. When safe engine off encounters may yield some of the most memorable encounters with cetaceans.
  • During photography with all marine mammals flashes should be turned off.
  • All sonar devices (depth sounders, fish finders) should be switched off when a vessel is in the vicinity of whales and dolphins. These acoustic reduction measures are addressed as a precaution against noise pollution.
  • Always be aware of signs of distress. If you think animals are distressed leave the area of interaction immediately and very slowly.
  • Whenever a vessel is upwind of and in the vicinity of whales, engine exhaust emissions should be minimized by shutting down one or more engines if it is safe to do so.


  1. Whale Watching is such a wonderful experience but it has to be done in a responsible way. Strict guidelines are necessary to protect marine mammals and ensure their well-being. Your webpage is very informative and useful, great work :)

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