CoastWise Alaska

Responsible Wildlife Viewing

Length with intro/outro: 3:27

Download mp3 file: Responsible Wildlife Viewing [3.2 MB]


Summer in Alaska tends to bring out our inner photographer. Camera in hand, we’re ready to snap a photo of a grizzly bear, whale, or sea lion. But all too often, our zeal to get a photo worthy of National Geographic ends with the animal running, flying, or swimming away. Next on CoastWise Alaska: some tips on responsible wildlife viewing.


Each summer, thousands of visitors and residents alike go into Alaska's wilds in search of adventure. Often that includes getting up close with the state's animals and clicking a photo of the experience. But getting too close and disturbing wild animals is not just harmful to wildlife, it may also be against the law.

Terry Johnson is the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program’s recreational and tourism specialist. And he's a student of human-animal interactions. He says Alaska has long had a problem with people getting too close to wildlife.

JOHNSON: “My guess would be that it's no less of a problem than ever. There are more people every year. There are more boaters, and more recreational users. And people’s expectations seem to get greater and greater. People expect to see the blood vessels in the eyeballs of the animals now.

For people new to the thrill of wildlife watching, Johnson offers some helpful advice.

JOHNSON: “What I really encourage people to do is think about the encounter or interaction from the wildlife's point of view. We love looking at animals, and it seems like you get the best experience by getting as close as possible. The important thing is to think about how the animal feels about it.”

Johnson says each species has their own sense of space and sensitivities to how close people can come before they show signs of disturbance.

JOHNSON: “If you’re talking about animals like seals and sea lions and otters, when they become alert, when they lift their heads up and swim around and stare directly at you, that's the first sign of disturbance. The second and more serious sign is when they start moving their bodies around, and making motions like they are getting ready to jump into the water. If you actually flush them into the water, then you’ve definitely disturbed them.”

Johnson says birds, too, are quick to show signs of disturbance when people get too close.

JOHNSON: “Their level of noise increases. They squawk. Some of them stand upright and flap their wings. If they start peeling off the rocks, in waves and sheets of birds leaving the rocks, then you know you have done some harm.”

Judging whether animals like whales are disturbed by our presence is more difficult, since whales spend their time mostly under water, and visual cues are hard to see. What's more, whales and marine mammals like Steller sea lions, sea otters, seals, and fur seals are federally protected species. His advice: stay at least 100 yards from whales and marine mammals, and back off even farther if they appear to be disturbed by your presence.

Johnson plans to publish a set of marine wildlife viewing guidelines in the coming months. He’s also working on a guide to wildlife viewing that will detail some of the best places to go to see Alaska's coastal birds and marine mammals.


CoastWise Alaska is a production of the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks, which offers outreach and technical assistance to help Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy the state's marine and coastal resources. Check out our Web site at

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