The Great Seal Count

Volunteers Needed at the Icelandic Seal Center

Come join us for our annual Great Seal Count at the Icelandic Seal Center. We need groups of volunteers to count seals along the coastline of the Vatnsnes Peninsula. There will be an orientation with a short presentation about the research. Please join us for coffee, tee and cake and speak to local scientist at the Seal Center.

Volunteer Description

During the Great Seal Count volunteers work with the Seal Center Staff to count the seals along the coastline of the Vatnsnes and Heggstaðarnes in Húnaþing vestra. The coastline is divided into smaller areas (2-7km) and volunteers and staff will be divided into groups.  Before you head out on the peninsula, there will be a short presentation about the Great Seal Count along with information about the research. 

Please join us for coffee and cake and speak to local scientists at the Seal Center.

Information for field participants

  • It is important to count only seals that are “inside” your area so that each seal is only counted once
  • You write down the all seals you can see, whether they are on land or at sea, also write down the time!
  • REMEMBER! Not all of you will see seals, but is important to us to know where the seals are and how many. So even if you do not see a seal, that´s very important information to us.
  • Please walk carefully and do not make noise since that may scare the seals away before you can count them! For same reason, please do not bring a dog
  • Close all gates, respect the animals in the area and do not walk over cultivated land (crops)


This is a wonderful opportunity to volunteer with the Icelandic Seal Center.  We are dedicated in developing sustainable wildlife tourism along with research and education on the status of the seal populations of Iceland.  We rely on volunteers like you to help us with our research.


Volunteers must have a passion for marine wildlife and an eagerness to share information with the Seal Center Staff.  They must be willing to endure outdoor weather conditions and be able to walk along uneven surfaces.

Please note that they Great Seal Count is not suitable for children younger than 5. Children under 16 years old must be accompanied by an adult. 


As tourist interest in seal watching increased, researchers in northern Iceland were afforded a new opportunity to involve the public in so-called citizen science. A collaboration between the Freshwater Research Institute and the Icelandic Seal Center created a project known as The Great Seal Count. This project is an annual census of harbor seals conducted on the Vatnsnes peninsula and Heggsstaðanes peninsula. The timing of the count alternates between July and August from year to year. These counts have been conducted every year since 2007 and are only possible through the participation of volunteers, mostly in the form of tourists. This is an exciting opportunity to explore areas of private land which are usually closed to the public, as well as contributing valuable information to the Icelandic Seal Center about the number of seals in the area.

Results from the Great Seal Count reveal a decrease in the number of seals in the Vatnsnes and Heggstaðanes area during the last few years, reflecting the decrease that has occurred in the harbor seal population on a national level between 2011 and 2016 (link to report will come here).


Scientists and volunteers covered 55-100 km of coastline (55 km in 2007, 75 km in 2008, and 100 km in 2009-2016) over a single period of 4 hours during afternoon low tide. Observers were each assigned a section of coastline from 2-7 km long to walk and record each seal they saw along the way. Every seal they saw as well as the seal’s location and whether it was in the water or on land was recorded. The size of the section assigned was determined by the difficulty of its terrain, as the whole survey was to be completed in less than 4 hours. In this way, the entire coastline could be assessed without the risk of seals moving to a new area after being counted and thus being counted a second time. Between 23 and 48 volunteers participated in the Great Seal Count each year from 2007-2016.


The average number of seals per year from 2007-2012 was 934 in the counting area of The Great Seal Count, but since then the number of seals spotted in the count decreased severely. Annual variation in the number of seals spotted is normal since the time seals spend on land is affected by different factors such as weather, which therefore can influence the result of the count on a given day. Seals may also change their distribution between different areas. It’s important to note that the estimates here are to be considered a minimum number of seals in the area since some seals are always in the water and hard to detect. A more accurate measure would be possible if the count were conducted repeatedly over a longer period. Also, keep in mind that this count only represents the population in a small area and these results does not necessarily represent the status of the seal population in general. However, a count of the entirety of Iceland is conducted every few years, when estimates of the number of seals in the whole seal populations are made. The latest estimate for the Icelandic harbor seal population revealed a decrease of one third of the seals between 2011 and 2016, which is reflected in the decrease of detected seals the last few years in the Great Seal Count.

For a full report of The Great Seal Count Results (in Icelandic) click HERE.