Watersports enthusiasts have been warned to steer clear of coastal wildlife after protected seals were “stressed out” in a close encounter at an Aberdeenshire rivermouth.
Paddleboarders were spotted causing seals alarm at the mouth of the River Ythan at the Forvie National Nature Reserve (NNR) at the weekend.
The animals, which are protected by law, were seen to be splashing in the water near the paddling humans on their boards, a behaviour which Lee Watson of the Ythan Seal Watch organisation said indicates distress.
The seals that live on the northern side of the Ythan’s mouth near Newburgh are afforded legal protection against intentional interference by humans under the Marine Scotland Act 2010.
Anyone proven to have disturbed the mammals at the Nature Scot site on purpose can face a £5,000 fine, or even time behind bars.
Mr Watson said the issue of people taking part in watersports like paddleboarding has been a particular issue over the last year, as a result of more people exploring Scotland’s beauty spots while Covid restrictions prevent foreign holidays.
He also highlighted another recent incident over the past few weeks where a group of quadbikers caused chaos for the creatures there.
Any disturbances to the seal population can potentially cause the animals to stampede, resulting in some animals being crushed or otherwise injured.
The animals can also harm humans, or pets, with powerful bites.
Mr Watson said: “Close-quarter contact with the seals can cause issues.
“When seals are curious, they can bite or nibble at things, especially if someone is dressed in a black wetsuit.
“So there’s the same risks that apply when approaching a seal on a beach as there is approaching one in the water, but the seals also have a lot more agility when they’re in the water.
“The person who took the photos described what the seals were doing with these paddleboarders, and they were doing what’s called crash-diving.
“This happens when they’re floating in the water and something stresses them out, and they splash their fins and dive underwater.
“This is behaviour that shows that these paddleboarders are giving the seals a lot of concern.
“The paddleboards have only really become a problem in the past two years, and in general over the last year in particular the more people holidaying in Scotland has resulted in an increase in people causing situations like this.
“We’re not saying that everyone who does watersports is a problem obviously, because this is just the minority. There’s a windsurfing club that have been here in Newburgh for years and they’ve never ever caused problems for the wildlife.”
A police spokeswoman said: “It is understandable that people want to watch the wildlife which lives in our waters and on the coastline but it is vitally important that this is done responsibly without disturbing the animals.
“We would recommend anyone watching marine wildlife keep their distance and follow the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code.
“This offers practical guidance for everyone who watches marine wildlife around Scotland, whether they are on the shore or at sea – and will help you stay within the law.
“We would encourage anyone witnessing a suspected crime to contact Police Scotland on 101.”
Nature Scot reports increase in watersports at reserves
A spokeswoman for Nature Scot said: “We have recently seen an increase in the number of people on paddleboards and canoes on the water in and around some of our nature reserves.
“To avoid disturbing wildlife, including seals and birds on the water or on the shoreline, we are urging people to access the water responsibly and keep a good distance away from any seals at the Ythan haul-out.
“Anyone who witnesses seals being intentionally or recklessly harassed should report their concerns to Police Scotland.”