The May 2014 issue of Alaska Magazine boasted a wonderful cover image of harbor seals on ice taken by a well-known photographer. The photographer, whom I count as a friend, is well-known for his unique trips, workshops, and high regard and concern for wildlife and involvement in conservation issues. Instead of a moment to savor, the moment faded quickly when letters to the editor arrived critical of the image and declaring that the photographer must have harassed the seals to get the shot and broken the Marine Mammal Protection Act. How? According to the letter writers the seals were looking at the photographer! And furthermore the bow of his kayak was visible in the picture, “a clear violation.” Oh, my. (As many of us know, and for the record, there is no regulatory approach distance established for seals.)
First, no animal – unless dead or somehow severely impaired – would fail to look up if it heard or sensed something or someone approaching. Robin, ram, bird, bear, seal or elephant, all creatures will look if something is approaching them and then make a decision as to what to do. Bird watchers, photographers, wildlife watchers, all have had animals stop feeding or whatever, look up, assess the situation, and either leave or go back to whatever it was they were doing in the first place. In the situation depicted in the now controversial photo I personally detect no distress and suspect that the seals just flopped back down to rest after they assessed the situation. I base my judgment on nearly 50 years of wildlife photography in Alaska. I will say however, that absolutely no one knows what happened after the shutter clicked besides the photographer and his companions, if any. I take him at his word that the whole event did not result in harm to the animals.
The magazine editor apparently contacted the NOAA Fisheries Services for comment. (NOAA is responsible for enforcement for the Marine Mammal Protection Act.) Spokesman Jon Kurland in Juneau was quoted as saying it was difficult to assess from the photo if “harassment had occurred” but that the animal’s “heads up posture reflected vigilant behavior,” which can be a sign of alertness to an impending threat. Harassment is illegal as we all know Kurland reiterated the basic rules. (However, this cover photo shows nothing other than animals looking up with the tip of a kayak extending somewhat into the foreground. It would be a huge stretch to label this proof of harassment.) After explaining that there are no federal distance rules established for seals Kurland went on to be quoted as saying that “humans and animals should keep a respectful distance.”
Much of the criticism levelled by the letter writers seems to be based on a false understanding of the law, as well as an unrealistic understanding of animal behavior. The photographer has 20-years of experience in Alaska and when he says he moves away from wildlife at the first sign of distress or discontent I, again, believe him. This whole incident is a good reminder to review the rules for approaching animals and be careful around wildlife so that our actions can not be misconstrued. To paraphrase the Bard, this event seems to have been a “tempest in a teapot.”