Christopher Barker, 45, was travelling at about 25 knots when he turned his boat, cut across the pod of about 10 dolphins and began circling and “chasing” them, York Magistrates’ Court heard.
Prosecutor Geoff Ellis said that as the dolphins tried desperately to swim for deeper waters they got split up, apparently separating a mother from her calf.
The distressing incident, at about 3pm on July 9 last year, was witnessed by fishermen, tourists and wildlife lovers on a marine nature cruise who took photos of Barker’s blue-and-white speedboat as it was driven towards the dolphin pod.
One witness, a self-employed fisherman and member of the Scarborough Lifeboat crew, said he spotted the dolphins looking “very relaxed” near Scarborough Harbour until he saw Barker’s speedboat “heading towards the pod at speed”.
He said the speedboat was doing about 25 knots as it neared the pod about 150 metres offshore. The pod reacted by initially drawing closing together but then panicked and darted in different directions.
He said it appeared that Barker had “deliberately” driven towards the pod in the South Bay.
'Coralling' the dolphins
He said it looked like Barker, a terrier man with the Derwent Hunt in North Yorkshire, was “corralling” the dolphins who appeared “distressed and agitated” and at one point “split into two separate, smaller groups”.
He said the dolphins reacted as if a predator were circling them but couldn’t escape because of the circling motions of the speedboat.
Passengers on the Queensferry cruise boat were shocked and upset to see the speedboat so close to the dolphins. The captain sounded the horn to try to stop the speedboat.
The owner of the Queensferry said he saw the dolphins “move faster” and further offshore as Barker sped towards them as they tried to flee.
He said they appeared “very agitated” as Barker turned his boat around and “moved around the pod at speed in a circling motion”.
He said Barker was travelling “too fast” and was “targeting” the pod for about 10 minutes.
A woman who was on the cruise boat said the passengers were enjoying seeing the dolphins but then began “shouting at (Barker), trying to get him to stop” when they saw the speedboat circling the pod.
She said the speedboat was “cutting across the path” of the dolphins, preventing them from escaping. The passengers were “clearly upset and angry at what they had seen”.
A retired photographer who took pictures of the disturbing scene said that “every time the dolphins turned to attempt to get away, (Barker) turned across their path to prevent them from doing so”.
He said that at one point he saw a young calf become separated from the group.
Another passenger on the Queensferry said she saw Barker’s speedboat “bouncing on the water surface”, creating a large wake, and that it appeared to be “chasing” the dolphins and coming within 10ft of them.
She said Barker appeared to be “hounding them as they tried to get to the safety of deep water”.
Barker was later quizzed by wildlife officers and admitted he had no experience or qualifications in seafaring.
He said he had no idea that dolphins were a protected species and wasn’t aware that they could be disturbed by speedboats and had no intention to do so.
He said his actions were “stupid” and apologised.
He was charged with intentionally or recklessly disturbing a wild animal but initially denied the allegation. He was due to face trial but pleaded guilty at the last minute.
The court heard that since the summer of 2020, sightings of Bottlenose dolphins on the Scarborough coast had increased exponentially, prompting a local campaign to ensure that all fishing, commercial and passenger boats keep their distance from the protected species.
Defence counsel for Barker, of Brompton, said he didn’t intend to disturb the pod and had since been vilified on social media.
Barker ran a successful business and bought himself the speedboat last summer despite having no seafaring experience.
District judge Adrian Lower said the case was the first of its kind to be prosecuted in the magistrates’ court.
He said that Barker had clearly disturbed a group of “these beautiful, intelligent creatures” and appeared to have been “oblivious” to the fact that his actions were illegal.
He said Barker had got “far too close” to the pod but added that there was no absolute proof that one of the younger mammals was a calf.
He said he believed that Barker had been “thoroughly incompetent” rather than wilfully cruel.
Barker was fined £200 and ordered to pay £300 costs, along with a £34 surcharge.