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Reaction of Harbor Seals to Cruise Ships

January 01, 2010

A study on the effects of ship disturbances on harbor seals in Alaska.

The largest aggregations of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) in Alaska haul out on floating ice in tidewater glacial fjords. Seals use these fjords in peak numbers during the critical periods of pupping, breeding, and molting when visits by tour ships also peak. Documented and suspected declines of harbor seals in fjords with rising vessel traffic underscore the need to better understand possible impacts, particularly in areas where ship visits have risen substantially in the past two decades. We examined the interruption of haulout bouts of harbor seals due to approaching cruise ships in Disenchantment Bay, Alaska. We conducted observations from cruise ships and focused on disturbance of seals as evidenced by seals flushing into the water from the floating ice on which they rested. We investigated rate of flushing in relation to vessel distance, approach angle, group size, and seal type (mother, pup, or other). Using a survival-regression analysis, we found that the risk of disturbing harbor seals increased when ships approached within 500 meters. Seals approached as close as 100 meters were 25 times more likely to enter the water than seals 500 meters from a ship. Seals were four times more prone to enter the water when ships were approaching directly rather than passing abeam. Seals responded similarly regardless of group size or seal type. Energetic models indicated a potential to disrupt energy balance and cause thermal stress in disturbed pups if they spent more than 50 percent of their time in ice-chilled water. Studies at non-glacial sites suggest that pups spend 40–70 percent of their time in the water. Voluntary guidelines for approaching seals in Alaska recommend that cruise ships not approach within 91 meters (100 yards), a distance at which we show 90 percent of seals would flush into the water. Our findings indicate a need to develop regulations to maintain a 500-meter separation between cruise ships and seals in all Alaskan glacial fjords.


John K. Jansen, Peter L. Boveng, Shawn P. Dahle, and John L. Bengtson. Published in Journal of Wildlife Management 74(6):1186–1194; 2010; DOI: 10.2193/2008-192.

Last updated by Alaska Regional Office on 03/16/2023

Harbor Seal Harbor Seal Research