The Icelandic Seal Center created and organizes the multi-national project The Wild North which aims to research the effects of tourism on wildlife in the North Atlantic region and produce a set of guidelines and advice for tourism operators, the general public and government authorities, both local and national.
In 2011 a trial code of conduct was created for the watching of seals on the Vatnsnes peninsula.
The Vatnsnes peninsula is an area of magnificent nature. Here, it’s possible to view several various animal species, the largest being harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). Some common bird species are the eider duck (Somateria mollissima), Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), Eurasian oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) and black guillemot (Cepphus grylle).
On Vatnsnes peninsula, designated seal watching locations have been developed, where seal watching from land is possible and in the village of Hvammstangi boat based seal watching is offered.
To be able to enjoy wildlife watching also in the future, it is important to minimize our potential impact on the natural behavior of wild animals. Earlier research has indicated that human disturbance may trigger stress responses among wild animals, which may negatively affect their welfare. Human disturbance may, in some cases, cause the animals to abandon a location for another where the disturbance is less prominent. Therefore, everyone should benefit from trying to find ways to enjoy wildlife watching as much as possible, but at the same time have the least possible effect on the behaviour of wild animals.
It’s important to keep in mind, that a seemingly small disturbance may have a great impact on the animals if the disturbance is repeated often, if the number of persons disturbing is big and if the disturbance occurs at a sensitive time of the year and/or on a sensitive location.
With that in mind, a code of conduct for visitors, local people and entrepreneurs has been developed in close collaboration with the international project The Wild North. The code is built on a study in which the effect of tourists on seals was analysed, as well as the background and motives of visitors at seal watching locations in the area.
When entering the natural environment of Vatnsnes, visitors are encouraged to adhere to the following code of conduct:
2. Visitor code of conduct
2.1 Land based seal and bird watching
- To increase the sustainability of wildlife watching in a natural environment, it’s important to have the least possible impact on the animal. Everyone is responsible for keeping disturbance at a minimum. It is especially important to show the animals and their habitats respect during their breeding and molting periods
- When approaching the animals it is best to walk and move slowly and avoid speaking loudly. Remember that the best possibility of observing natural animal behavior occurs when you see the animal before it sees you! Remember to leave the area as carefully as you approached it.
Use binoculars and avoid getting to close to wild animals. Do not move faster than walking speed if a nesting bird is closer than 10 meters away. Always use walking paths, where they are present.
- Remember that the possible negative impact on the animals is likely to increase with the number of people that are located at the seal-watching site. Therefore, everyone should minimize the time they spend watching the animals.
If the animals show any signs of disturbance (vigilance, alarm calls etc.), it is best to move away from the animals before they leave the area. It is especially important not to scare the birds from their nests or to flush the seals from their haul-out site into the sea.
- Let the animals decide how close to you they want to come. Seals are curious animals and often choose to approach humans. You should never chase or follow wild animals! It is very important to let them move away if they wish to do so.
Feeding wild animals may be harmful to them and may have a negative effect on their natural behavior.
- Wild animals may be dangerous. For example, seals and birds may carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Therefore, you should never touch a wild animal with your hands or with an object, nor throw something at or towards the animal.
- If you photograph the animals, avoid using the flash on the camera.
- It is never desirable to bring dogs to seal watching sites. Dogs often have a strong negative impact on marine mammals and birds.
- Remember to leave the environment and nature as you entered it. Garbage should be thrown away in garbage cans and not in the wild!
- If you witness harassment of wild animals in the area, please contact the Icelandic Seal center.
2.2 Boat based seal watching
- Show wild animals and local people respect! It is especially important to show the animals and their habitats respect during their breeding and molding periods.
- To increase the possibility of wildlife watching in a natural environment in the future, it’s important to have the least possible impact on the animal. Everyone is responsible for keeping disturbance at a minimum level.
- If the animals show any signs of disturbance (vigilance etc.), it is best to move away from the animals before they leave the area. It is recommended to behave calmly in the boat at all times and to avoid speaking loudly in the presence of wild animals.
- Seals are curious animals and often choose to approach humans. To get an even better view, binoculars and telephoto lenses are recommended
- You should never feed wild animals. Feeding wild animals may be harmful to them and may have a negative effect on their natural behaviour.
- Wild animals may be dangerous. For example, seals and birds may carry diseases that can transmit to humans. Therefore, you should never touch a wild animal with your hands or with an object, nor throw anything at or towards the animal.
- You may photograph the animals, but avoid using the flash on the camera.
- Do not throw anything over board. Remember to leave the environment as you entered it. Garbage should be thrown away in garbage cans and not in the wild!
- If you witness harassment of wild animals in the area, please contact the Icelandic Seal center
3. The entrepreneur code of conduct for Vatnsnes cluster
3.1 The general entrepreneur code of conduct
All companies in the Vatnsnes cluster should:
- Introduce the code of conduct to visitors that are enjoying wildlife on the company’s behalf, encourage them to use the code and to educate visitors and others about the importance of respecting wildlife.
- Prevent visitors from touching wild animals and prevent that things are thrown on or against animals.
- Prevent feeding wildlife, as that might harm the animals and may have a negative effect on their natural behavior.
- Prevent the visitors from swimming with seals, to ensure safety.
- Remind visitors not to litter, but to use garbage cans.
- To have an environmentally friendly policy, e.g. regarding garbage sorting. In addition, it is important that garbage cans are accessible on seal watching sites and on board seal watching boats, to avoid litter in the environment.
- If possible, record animal species and number of individuals observed on sightseeing tours.
3.2 Additional code for the seal watching boat
The crew of the seal watching boat should also consider the following issues:
- Seal haul-out sites are particularly sensitive to disturbance. Haul-out sites should be approached from an oblique angle (avoid approaching the haul-out site directly). If animals are paying attention to the boat it is possible that the presence of the boat has an impact on the natural behaviour of the seals. It is then important to be prepared to move away calmly and quietly.
- Do not get closer to a haul-out site than 50 meters. Keep in mind to minimize the time that the boat stops outside a haul out site, in order to have the least possible effect on the animals. The maximum limit is 10-15 minutes in each trip.
- Seals are curious animals and often approach humans. However, the boat should never follow seals that are in the sea. The crew should recommend that visitors use binoculars to see better, rather than approaching the seals too closely. The crew should have extra binoculars for the visitors.
- If the animals show any sign of disturbance of their natural behaviour caused by the boat (e.g. many seals are vigilant and paying attention to the boat), it is important to move away from the haul-out site before the animals flush into the sea. The captain is responsible for driving the boat away if the seals show signs of disturbance. The crew should advise the visitors to behave calmly in the boat at all times and to speak softly in the presence of wild animals.
- Avoid sailing between single animals and the rest of the group and thereby separating single animals from the group. In addition, it is important to avoid scaring animals up on land.
- Avoid sudden engine noises and sudden changes in direction and speed.
- It is important to keep the engine and other parts of the boat in good condition to minimize noise and pollution from the boat.