Wildlife tourism in Iceland gets seal of approval

It’s thought that wildlife-based tourism is one way through which the more exploitative forms of animal-driven economies, like hunting, the exotic pet trade, or the illegal sale of bushmeat, can be reduced. Indeed, if wildlife is worth more alive than dead or captured, then promoting tourism can be thought of as a useful item in the conservationist’s toolkit, at least in certain circumstances.

But tourism is not without its own problems. Animals can be keenly aware of human presence and noise, and if they’re spending their time remaining vigilant, they might consequently spend less time foraging or resting, and new mothers might have less time to nurse their young. When humans get too close, animals could respond with anti-predator behaviors, mainly by fleeing. And increased stress due to human presence can have negative physiological consequences, like a higher heart rate, or atypical hormone levels. Such responses can also use up a lot of energy and can result in separation of parents and offspring. If breeding or resting sites become highly disadvantageous to a population of animals because of tourist infestation, then those animals might try to find new places to live. These sorts of effects would be detrimental to any population of animals, but are especially worrisome for endangered or threatened species.

It isn’t that tourists can’t spend their money and be respectful of wildlife; it’s just that tourist operations need to operate carefully and in an ecologically healthy way. In order to understand what the least invasive forms of tourism are, scientists first need to understand how certain wildlife populations respond to tourist presence. That’s what Icelandic researchers Sandra Magdalena Granquist and Hrefna Sigurjonsdottir did for a group of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) in northwest Iceland. In particular, they looked at how the behavior of harbor seals was affected by land-based (rather than boat-based) tourism.

In 2011, the population of Icelandic harbor seals was estimated to contain some 11,000 individuals. The females typically give birth in May and June, and pups are weaned after four weeks. That period overlaps with the peak of tourist visitation, between June 20 and August 31. With the exception of May 20-June 20, when the area is closed due to eider duck nesting, tourists can access the study area, which has been promoted as a seal watching site since 2007, throughout the year.

On the bright side, Granquist and Sigurjonsdottir found that tourists didn’t completely drive the seals out of their pupping site, and they only seldom responded to tourists with escape behaviors. However, both the presence and behavior of tourists did affect the seals’ spatial distribution and behavior more generally.

For one thing, the presence of tourists resulted in increased vigilance among the seals. That makes good intuitive sense: loud primates seem a potential threat to the awkward pinnipeds, even if not quite threatening enough to send them swimming away. During the month that the viewing site was closed, seals were far less vigilant, and the number of vigilant seals increased with the number of tourists. Further, seals’ vigilance was higher when tourists were active or loud than when they were more subdued.

The tourists also affected the seals’ behavior. They were more likely to haul out of the water on the farther of two skerries when tourists were around, and the proportion hauling out on the closer skerry decreased as the number of tourists increased.

The findings actually became more interesting as the researchers dug a bit deeper. They compared the seals’ and tourists’ behavior based on whether the tourists were in the “watching zone,” or the “approach zone.” In the watching zone, most tourists – especially singles and couples – became more respectful of the animals, speaking more quietly and moving about more slowly.

But there’s a one kilometer-long pathway that tourists must traverse to get to the watching zone. While the tourists are on the pathway, they can’t usually see the seals. As a result, many – especially families and large groups – tended to be more noisy. The seals, however, are aware of the tourists’ presence whether they’re in the approach or viewing zones. Thus the seals were responding to tourist behavior before most of the tourists were aware that they had the potential to disturb the seals.

Strategically placed signs along the approach zone might be enough to mitigate the negative behavior, along with information provided by tour operators. Critically, it’s not enough to simply tell tourists how to behave. Rather, research has shown that they must understand why they are being asked to change their behavior. “Often, tourists are aware that they can disturb wildlife and are willing to reduce disturbance,” write Granquist and Sigurjonsdottir, “if they have access to good information on how they should behave around wildlife and why.”

After considering all their findings, Granquist and Sigurjonsdottir concluded that the area they studied was indeed conducive to wildlife viewing. There was a natural barrier between the human area and the seal area, and that apparently eliminated the seals’ need to engage in anti-predator or escape-related behaviors. That there are two skerries gives the seals some measure of choice, allowing them to move to the farther one if they felt particularly disturbed.

However, they also recommend that tour operators explain appropriate behavior to tourists, along with the reasons behind those recommendations, and that group size be controlled. “Whether frequent visits by smaller tourist groups or big tourist groups with less frequent visits have the least impact should be tested,” they say. – Jason G. Goldman | 16 May 2014

Source: Granquist S.M. & Sigurjonsdottir H. (2014). The effect of land based seal watching tourism on the haul-out behaviour of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in Iceland, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, DOI:

Header image: Harbor seal in Iceland; shutterstock.com