“Selfie” culture puts marine wildlife at risk

Fall 2016

By Andrew Addessi

 In the Internet Age, a visit to the beach may mean more than sun and fun. A mounting number of news reports, internet videos, and social media posts document tourists harassing seals and sea lions and their pups, all for the sake of a photo.

This includes feeding, picking up, or even sitting on these wild animals. Trouble is, these close interactions put both animals and humans at risk. These actions are also illegal, since all marine mammals are protected from harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

“It’s related to everyone having a cell phone in their hands and wanting to get a photo up on their social media profile,” said Gabrielle Dorr, Communications Specialist with NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Most of these people are good people such as families with kids. They go to the beach and see other people doing it so they think it’s acceptable behavior.”

people on beach near a group of sleeping seals

Beachgoers in La Jolla, California approach a California Sea Lion haul-out for photos. These close encounters can be dangerous to both the animal and to the people involved. NOAA Fisheries advises viewers to stay at least 100 yards from seals and sea lions. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The prevalence of such incidents has prompted NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region to launch a coordinated outreach campaign spanning the coast that reminds beachgoers to #ShareTheShore with wildlife. 

“We put together a comprehensive campaign with various products and carefully crafted messaging,” Dorr explains. “We didn’t want to say, ‘don’t do this…don’t do that,’ but rather wanted to promote safe viewing.”

Pinnipeds- the family of marine mammals that includes seals, sea lions, and walruses- spend important portions of their life on shore, in small colonies called “haul-outs.” This is where they mate, nurse their young, rest and regulate their body temperatures. However, hauling out on busy beaches today puts them in harm’s way—from both predators and encroaching beachgoers.  

Close human encounters stress the animals and can “flush” them into the sea, forcing seal mothers and young pups to expend vital energy they need for survival. Even if pups do not appear alarmed by people in their vicinity—many pups are too young to develop a wariness response—close contact with people can lead their mothers to abandon them. 

harp seal on grey mat

Unfortunately, this harbor seal pup from the Puget Sound Area was picked up and handled by beach visitors. It was subsequently abandoned by its mother. Fortunately, the pup was rehabilitated by PAWS wildlife center, a partner organization of the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Photo courtesy of PAWS Wildlife Center

Experts see several reasons for the rise in incidents. First, many marine mammal populations are increasing, leading to more animal encounters. Second, more people are engaging in outdoor recreation and watersports, putting them in proximity to wildlife. And then there’s today’s “selfie”-obsessed culture, where a good photo is everything.

It’s not only an issue on the beach— inappropriate wildlife viewing is becoming increasingly problematic in national parks and other protected areas, as well.

Kristin Wilkinson, the NOAA Fisheries Regional Stranding Coordinator for Washington and Oregon, agrees that many people do not understand the consequences. “Their motivation [to approach an animal] comes from wanting to do something cool or unique, but they are not focused on the welfare of the animals,” she said.

The Share the Shore campaign has been active on Facebook and Twitter, posting alerts throughout the summer.  With slogans such as “No Selfies with Seals,” the campaign hopes to promote responsible wildlife viewing habits through the same social media platforms that have helped contribute to the rise in inappropriate encounters.

Other campaign materials include a dedicated webpage with resources and FAQs about pinniped viewing, a public service announcement, and postcards and brochures for display at hotels, parks, and other businesses. These materials complement other NOAA Fisheries outreach campaigns, such as BeWhaleWise, which advises recreational boaters and water sports enthusiasts on safe ways to view whales and dolphins. 

Both campaigns urge the public to give wildlife space and respect, staying at least 100 yards from seal or sea lion haul-outs. Beachgoers should also keep their pets on leash. Dog attacks can prove fatal for seals and sea lions at the same time they put pets at risk of injury or disease. 

The #ShareTheShore campaign also reminds the public to never pick up or intervene with seals and sea lions or their pups, even if the animal appears injured or stranded. “A lot of people feel responsible when they see that wildlife is threatened,” Wilkinson explained, “but it is important to remember that mortality is common and natural, and that the animal’s best chance for survival is to be left in the wild.” 

dead harbor seal with wound

This harbor seal suffered from an attack by an unleashed dog, and did not survive. These types of altercations also risk the spread of disease to pets and humans. Dogs must remain on leash when in the vicinity of marine wildlife. Photo courtesy of Sealsitters; Credit: Robin Lindsey 

If you encounter a marine mammal that is dead, injured, or presumed stranded, please call the regional stranding network, at (866) 767-6114. If you witness anyone harassing marine mammals, call NOAA Fisheries hotline at: (800) 853-1964.   

To learn more about the work of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, including partner organizations where you can volunteer to help protect marine wildlife, you can visit the Marine Mammal Stranding Network webpage.