Space for Seals: Understanding the relationship between human stakeholders and seals to promote positive wildlife watching practices.

It is increasingly recognised that human health and wellbeing can be fostered through encounters with the natural world and wildlife¹. Be it unexpected or planned, sighting a charismatic marine species such as the grey seal is often an exciting and meaningful experience that encourages a connection to the natural world². However, there also exists a conflict between the human desire to observe and interact with seals, the conservation of the species, individual seal welfare and the economy of which they are a part.

Seals must haul-out on land to rest, breed, pup and moult and it is this behaviour that ensures they are a visible and reliable target species for wildlife watching. However, human behaviour such as approaching seals on a beach can cause them to hurriedly abandon resting spots or dive quickly to escape threat. This can have a detrimental impact on the ability of seals to live well and thrive. Consequences include the abandonment of pups, missed foraging opportunities, a disruption in their energy balance, and possible injury or death³ ⁴. When observing seals in this context and potentially driving seals to harm, humans cannot be said to be coexisting well with seals. This work will take a participatory and creative approach to explore the relationship between the seals and observers in order to promote the health and wellbeing of both groups. It will place the stakeholders of wildlife watching at the forefront of imagining and communicating what it means to have an ethical relationship between seals and those that want to observe them.

The activity of seal watching is a complex set of relations between individual narratives/experiences of “seeing the seals”, the value of seal-watching trips to the local economy, conservation aims and the experiences of the seals themselves. The activity involves a diverse set of stakeholder groups including recreationists, tourists, tour operators, charities, local community groups and seal advocacy groups. The narratives and experiences of these groups are often not sufficiently reflected in current codes of conduct and educational materials designed to tackle the issue, potentially limiting their effectiveness.  Space for Seals aims to:

  • Understand the relationships between the human stakeholders of wildlife watching and the seals, and how they inform detrimental interspecies interactions.
  • Explore the different ethical relationships human stakeholders could develop with seals, that focus on care and responsibility.
  • Identify novel and engaging possibilities for communication and intervention with different interspecies stakeholders.
  1. Bell et al. 2018 Landscape Research, 43, p.8-19;
  2. Yerbury et al. 2020 Anthrozoos, 33, p.461-479;
  3. Tadeo et al. 2021 Aquatic Mammals, 47, p.268-282;
  4. Andersen et al. 2012 Aquatic Conservation, 22, p.113-121

What did the project involve?

The research team will run creative participatory workshops with members of human stakeholder groups to create space for meaningful interaction between the participants on how to optimise human-seal relations. The aims of the workshops are to explore the more-than-human entanglements and interrelations that human stakeholders and seals find themselves in. Participants will be invited to relate to seals differently, by entering into different relations with the (absent) bodies of the animals themselves. They will explore interspecies relations through a variety of creative activities that will combine narrative approaches, material experiments and playful performance-based activities.

The workshop activities will provide a foundation for the co-production of a toolkit that can communicate and strengthen implementation of best practice guidelines to use as a tool for future conservation and community engagement. The toolkit would allow larger groups to begin reimagining their relationships to the seals and assist in promoting good practice.This toolkit could also be used by Seal Research Trust, local marine groups in Cornwall, Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group, Seal Alliance group members, Members of the Marine Mammal Disturbance Partnership run by Natural England and other interested parties.

This research project will also develop of a set of more-than-human maps of spaces (physical, geographical, sensory) for seal interactions and the processes will be documented and written up in a co-authored blog by members the project team.

This team brings together expertise in trans-disciplinary, creative and co-produced research methodologies to explore the theme of seal/human interactions from a new perspective.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Paul Hurley (Artist) is a transdisciplinary artist-researcher specialising in creating socially engaged art projects, participatory and artistic research, and public engagement. His interests are in more-than-human worlds, performed identities and in cultural knowledges and agency.
  • Emma Roe (Associate Professor Geography, University of Southampton) is a leading trans-disciplinary scholar developed from her core concerns in more-than-human geographies.
  • Leah Trigg (Senior Research Associate, University of Bristol) conducts research focussed on animal behaviour and welfare including the impacts of anthropogenic activities on grey seals. Specifically, she has published on the behavioural reactions and potential auditory damage to seals from underwater vessel noise in the English Channel and Celtic Sea, and supervised research related to the disturbance of seals by tourism.
  • Sue Sayer (Founder and Director of the Seal Research Trust) leads a charity that surveys seals at locations around Cornwall and promotes their conservation in partnership with citizen scientists nationally. The group have a close connection to the local community and drive activities to prevent disturbance including lobbying for changes to legislation.