WHALE watchers have been warned to behave when viewing the mammals off the Scottish coast or they could end up being prosecuted for animal cruelty.

A leading marine conservation group has issued the warning over fears people  wanting to see whales and dolphins close up could end up harming the creatures.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) group has reminded those hoping to see the mammals in their natural habitat they must adhere to a code of conduct.

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A WDC spokesman said: “With sightings of whales and dolphins becoming more common, we are urging people to take care when out on the water and follow the newly updated Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code to avoid potential prosecution for disturbing marine wildlife.

“Local waters in Scotland are a safe home for many whales and dolphins and the revised code encourages those people who do want to see them up close to either  watch from selected points on land, or use an accredited boat operator to ensure such encounters are not at the expense of the health or welfare of these majestic marine mammals.”

The code advises people to be aware they are not disturbing the creatures by  getting too close or by disrupting the local environment.

The organisation’s Sarah Dolman added: “Disturbing whales and dolphins is an offence and it can, and has resulted in  prosecution by the UK Wildlife Crimes Unit under Wildlife legislation.

“Scotland is a great place to watch marine wildlife from land but many people are unaware of the laws around this issue."

The warning comes after a big boom in whale watching in Scotland. Last week it was announced nearly £200,000 is to be spent on helping promote the west coast of Scotland as one of the best places in Europe to see whales.

The Scottish Government has awarded the grant to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), and the funding will go towards creating 25 whale-watching sites across the west coast.

Tiumpan Head, on Lewis, is already considered the best place in Europe to see cetaceans from land and local campaigners have long called for a watching centre there.

Mineral-rich waters warmed by the Gulf Stream are attracting minke, sperm, killer, fin, northern bottlenose and humpback whales in growing numbers to the west coast, alongside basking sharks, porpoises and dolphins. WDC’s Shorewatch volunteers have spotted 10 species of whale and dolphin off Scotland this month alone.  Along with Moray Firth favourites, the bottlenose dolphins, sightings of orca, humpbacks and even sperm whales are gaining attention in local communities and beyond.

Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said: “With more than 10,000 miles of stunning coastline in Scotland we need to do all we can to protect the marine environment that lives there and to help people living and working in these areas make the most of the economic opportunities on offer.”

In addition to whale-watching sites, a £10 million dolphin-spotting centre is planned for Aberdeen Harbour.

The updated Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code is complemented by a 62-page Guide To Best Practice For Watching Marine Wildlife, which gives practical guidance on responsible behaviour around the animals.