Interacting with Wildlife

Interacting with Wildlife

Visiting Antarctica and the islands in the Southern Ocean will give you unrivalled opportunities to see, experience and photograph some of the most amazing birds and animals. Many of these animals have no innate fear of humans allowing for very natural viewing conditions and giving you the chance to witness the penguins, seals and other wildlife behaving as they have for millenia. 

All of the ships which Antarctic Expeditions works with in Antarctica are members of IAATO and follow IAATO's guidelines for wildlife viewing. Below you will find the IAATO Guidelines which you will be asked to follow while ashore in Antarctica and which your ships crew and expedition staff will be observing.

IAATO Guidelines for Birdwatching


Viewing birds on shore

On approach to shore - birds such as penguins may be subject to disturbance by small boat operations close to landing sites or colonies. Approach or depart a landing site or colony slowly to minimize any disturbance. Staff/crew should assess the best landing point – ideally as far from groups of birds as possible. This is particularly important if birds are moulting near the shore. Avoid boat operations in waters where birds enter and exit, are bathing, or are feeding close to colonies. Be aware of birds in the water; slow down and/or alter course to avoid collision.

Once on shore

Walk slowly and encourage passengers to simply sit and watch the animals. Avoid blocking ‘walkways’ in colonies and water entry and exit points. If parent birds are blocked from returning to their nests, increased predation of eggs and chicks may occur by skuas and gulls. In addition, parent birds will waste precious energy by avoiding human obstacles on their way to their nests or being displaced from the shortest access route. Take care in tussock grass where birds may be nesting, including in burrows under bare earth. If skuas (jaegers) or terns start dive-bombing, they may be protecting young or nests. Retreat in the direction you approached from. Be aware that eggs and young are well camouflaged and might be hidden from your view.

Under no circumstances should ‘chumming’ (depositing fish guts or oil) occur to attract birds. Never feed wild birds.

Recommended approach distances to birds

5-10 meters/16-33 feet from nesting seabirds.

Keep 10 meters/16 feet from nesting, and 25 meters/ 82 feet fromdisplaying albatrosses.

Southern Giant Petrels seem particularly prone to disturbance whilst nesting; stay 25-50 meters/82-164 feet away, if possible.

Viewing birds on water

Sometimes spectacular concentrations of seabirds may be found out at sea – rafts of birds either feeding on the surface, diving from it, or simply resting and bathing. Many of these birds may have flown hundreds or thousands of miles, often to find food for their young. Stay on the fringes of these concentrations.

Ships should stay 100 meters/328 feet and small boats.

Zodiacs 30 meters/98 feet away.

Very rarely, swimming penguins can find themselves in a small boat when they ‘porpoise’, landing on the deck. Occupants should remain quiet and wait for the penguin to find its own way over the side and return to the water. It is normally not necessary to assist.

IAATO Seal Watching Guidelines


Understanding seal behavior

Seals hauled out on land, rock or ice, are sensitive to boats and human presence. Noises, smells and sights may elicit a reaction. Be aware of seal behaviour that indicates a seal has been disturbed. Such behaviours include, but are not limited to: An increase in alert or vigilance, Head turning Change in posture from lying to erect, Hurriedly moving away from the approaching vessel, Open mouth threat displays (e.g. such as in leopard seals on ice, or elephant seals on land), Aggressive displays or bluff charges in your direction.

Viewing seals on land and ice

Try not to break their horizon or tower over hauled-out seals – stay low. Pups are often left alone when the mother is feeding. They are not abandoned and should be left alone and not touched. Any seal response other than a raised head should be avoided. If an individual or a herd moves towards the water or there is a hurried entry into the water by many individuals, you should retreat slowly and carefully. Be aware that fur seals and sea lions are highly mobile on land and might charge (and potentially bite) if approached too closely - keep at least 15 metres / 50 feet from them Be aware of animals in tussock grass areas. Ideally, a field guide should lead, carrying walking stick or equivalent. Keep a minimum distance from jousting bull elephant seals of 25 meters (82 feet).

IAATO Marine Mammal Viewing Guidelines


General guidelines for viewing all marine mammals

Marine mammals may approach vessels and if it wants to interact, it may stay with the vessel. This is when it is best for the vessel to drift passively, however, allowing a vessel to drift within acceptable distances to the animals could constitute an intentional approach. Do not chase or pursue animals. Animals may alter their behaviour if they are disturbed, when in doubt, err on the side of caution and give the animals time and space. Keep a watch for the following behaviour, which could indicate that the animal is agitated and no longer interested in staying near the vessel. Where this behaviour is noted, let the animal depart and when safe, move away slowly:

Changes in travelling directions

Regular changes in direction or speed

Moving away from the area

Apparent general agitation

Hasty dives

Breaching, tail lobbing and flipper slapping may be an indication that the whales are socialising and may not be aware of boats. Keep your distance. If a cetacean approaches a vessel to bow-ride, maintain a relatively constant course and speed. Never herd (surround), separate or scatter a group of marine mammals, particularly mothers and young. Where appropriate, stay where they can see you. Never chase animals. Stay with the animal up to a maximum time of one hour. If signs of disturbance or change in behaviour occur at any time during the stay with the animals, retreat slowly and quietly. When close to marine mammals keep voices low, don’t whistle or shout. Keep radio volume down. Communicate with other boats to minimise disturbance to animals. Avoid sudden movements that might startle the animal. Never attempt to touch or feed animals. Playback of underwater sound of any kind should not occur. If hydrophones are used from small boats to listen to the underwater sounds it is preferable to have the engines of the small boats shut down.

General code of conduct around marine mammals:

Do not enter a group of dolphins to encourage them to bow-ride. If a cetacean surfaces in the vicinity of your vessel, take all necessary precautions to avoid collisions, while avoiding sudden changes in speed or direction. This may include, slowing down, slowly coming to a stop, and/or steering away from the animal. Be aware of other boats and obstacles, e.g. shorelines to ensure the animal is never boxed in. Ensure that travel and exit routes for the animal are clear and that a “Tunnel” of small boats does not form. When watching animals in the water, it is suggested that a maximum of two ships or 4 small craft are in zone 4 (200m) at any one time. Boats watching animals together should be next to each other to ensure the animals have a large open avenue to depart through. If Killer Whales approach Kayaks and begin spy hopping behaviour, ensure that safety small boats are close to the kayaks and consider transfering paddlers from kayaks to small boats. Don’t approach feeding baleen whales closer than 200m. Approach cetaceans from parallel to and slightly to the rear (4 or 8 o’ clock position), not from the front or directly behind the animal. Attempt to stay downwind of animals. Put engines in neutral and allow engine to idle without turning off. If you want to turn the engine off, first idle for a few minutes before turning off. Try avoiding abrupt changes in noise that may startle or disturb the animal, including excessive engine use, gear changes, manoeuvring or backing up to the animal. Avoid the use of bow or stern lateral bow thrusters to maintain position as these can produce high pitched noise and intensive cavitations.