WATERSPORTS enthusiasts have been warned they could face criminal charges if they bother dolphins.

Launching a poster campaign intended to protect marine wildlife in the Moray Firth, Police Scotland said anyone “disturbing” the mammals or putting them at risk of injury could end up in court.

The force said that last summer it dealt with reports of incidents including private boat operators getting too close to a pod of pilot whales near the Kessock Bridge and a kite surfer allegedly disturbing dolphins feeding at Chanonry Point.

The viewpoint at Chanonry Point between Fortrose and Rosemarkie on the Black Isle. is a favourite spot for people wanting to watch dolphins in the Moray Firth. Private boats and several other kite surfers also risked disturbing dolphins in the area.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are protected under the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1994.

This includes protection from disturbance – whether it be reckless or deliberate – harassment, killing and injury, with offences subject to a fine of up to £5,000.

Police said warmer weather led to an increase in marine craft operating around Scotland’s coast, leading to an increase in the likelihood of an encounter with a cetacean.

Wildlife crime liaison officer, Constable Daniel Sutherland said: “We entirely understand that people will want to get a good view of dolphins and other marine life off the coastline.

“We do not want to discourage this, but want to make sure people do so responsibly with respect for the wildlife. Last year we received an increase in reports of water users getting far too close to cetaceans, sometimes for a good photo, or because of a lack of awareness surrounding their protection, or sometimes just a complete lack of regard for their safety.”

The posters are funded by Scottish Natural Heritage and in consultation with Whale and Dolphin Conservation. 

Ben Leyshon, of Scottish Natural Heritage, said: “Whales, dolphins and porpoises are spectacular to watch, but they can easily be disturbed by human activity.

“This can interfere with their breeding and feeding activities. When you’re out on the water it’s important to be aware of how your behaviour will affect them. Choose an accredited operator if you want a tour of high quality and low impact, or watch from the shore.”

Alison Rose, manager of the Scottish Dolphin Centre, at the mouth of the River Spey, said: “Just like dolphins, people love messing about in the water. However, these days that can mean using sport and leisure equipment that is fast, heavy and sometimes very loud in the case of jet-skis.

“This can disturb and even be really harmful to dolphins.

“We want everyone to have fun, but it’s important we are all aware that when we’re on the water we’re sharing that space with whales, dolphins and other marine mammals for whom the sea is their home.”