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Seal Tours by Natural Habitat Adventures

Here is the text of email correspondence between Yvonne and Natural Habitat Adventures regarding the use of sealers and those involved in sealing.

Below this is email correspondence between Yvonne and another tourist on the same seal tour.

The first set of emails date back to 2007, before Yvonne went on the harp seal tour.

The next set and the emails between Yvonne and the other tourist were sent after her trip.

We are reprinting the emails verbatim, including some misspelled words and names.

As a result of these exposures and a complaint that Yvonne filed with the Better Business Bureau, Natural Habitat Adventures has canceled its harp seal tours. See the emails about this at the bottom of the page (or use the link to the right).

 



Emails sent before seal tour

 

Hello Yvonne,

I hope you are doing well. You had been kind enough to visit our website in June and request information on our small group wildlife and natural history trips around the World.

I just wanted to touch base to make sure our catalog did arrive. It is square and glossy, with a photograph of a lioness pictured on the front cover and contains about 200 pages of details on our adventures. Do you remember receiving it?

Did a particular destination catch you eye? Are you still considering either a trip to see the Northern Lights or our Seal Watch trip? If you have questions about any of our trips, please feel free to call or email me directly at your convenience. If you are interested in the types of trips we offer please let me know and I would be happy to keep you on our mailing list. We did just release our new 2008/09 catalog.

I'll look forward to hearing from you and do hope you'll choose to travel with us soon!

Kind Regards,
Suzanna Spencer
Adventure Specialist

Natural Habitat Adventures

2945 Center Green Ct.
Suite C- Boulder, CO 80301

(toll free) 800-543-8917
(international) 303-449-3711
(fax) 303-449-3712

 


 

Hi Suzanna-

Thank you for the e-mail. Yes, I did receive your catalog and marveled at the pictures and ALL the destinations your company travels to! Yes, I'm still planning on visiting the Harp Seals in 2009, I wish it wasn't so far off. It's been a life long dream so see these little fellows. I'm off to Churchill next month and in July 2008 I'll be heading for Banff/Jasper.

As I think I've mentioned to you before it is VERY, VERY important to me NOT to book with a company that will use the Harp Seal sightings to alert the hunters in the area after the photography tour is done.

Your company was recommended over and over by different Harp Seal protection organizations as a seal friendly tour company. As a suggestion, your company might want to market that fact more in your literature and website... I can't be the only person concerned about not leading the hunters to these precious animals.

So, come 2009, barring body and mind, I'll be joining your company on the Harp Seal excursion. Just as an FYI, I researched for about a year the different companies that go to Churchill and I went with a company that offer the most time out on the tundra for the money. As a photographer, emersion(sic) is important to get as many shots as possible in the time allotted.

Well, as more information is released about the 2009 Harp Seal Tour or when your new catalog is released, please forward me anything you think might interest me. I'd appreciate it.

Thank you again,
Yvonne

 


 

Hello Yvonne,

Thank you for your reply. It sounds like you have some great plans ahead for you this year.

We started our company over 20 years ago with the sole purpose of bringing an alternative means to this area for the harp seals. We make each employee sign an agreement with us that they will not hunt or alert hunters or work with any organization that does these activities. We also do not use any helicopter companies that are used later with the hunters.

Thank you for your suggestion that we might want to add that to our literature.

What company did you end booking with for your polar bear trip? We do start out shortly after breakfast and stay out until 4 pm which is shortly before it does start to get to dark for photography. Hopefully, you will have a fantastic time! Please do let me know if you come up with any other questions regarding the Harp Seal trip.

Kind Regards,
Suzanna

 


 

Emails sent after the seal tour

 

Email to Natural Habitat Adventures founder Ben Bressler

Note in highlighted text an admission about Natural Habitat Adventures use of sealers that contradicts the statements made by Suzanna, shown above.

Good Evening Mr. Bressler-

I've just returned from the Maggie's and the second of your Harp Seal tours. It has been 34 years since I first saw a Harp Seal white back pup on a poster and immediately fell in love with them. I was so very happy that this year’s weather provided the opportunity for me to finally see one in person. What an amazing and precious animal and I was so very fortunate to share their world for a moment. This was a life long dream come true! I am also an avid conservationist and animal activist and am grimly aware of the harp seal hunt in Canada. So I am educated in the ways of how the Harp Seal’s life is attacked by man.

When I began researching a company to hire to take me to the Harp Seals I contacted Green Peace and asked them if there were any companies that would take me to see the pups but NOT lead the hunters to the pups after I was gone. This was so important to me that I would forgo seeing the pup’s if all tour companies lead the hunters to them. Green Peace gave me your endorsement as the only company they knew of that would NOT lead the hunters to the pups. I contacted NatHab and asked several times if the hunters were lead to the pups after the tourist were gone and was assured that hunters would never be lead to the pups and that all of the guides and helicopter pilots were in fact FORMER hunters who now believe that hunting the seals is wrong. I was also told that your company would not be endorsed by the WWF if your company did not protect the seal pups. Because of the Green Peace endorsement and your staff telling me about the moral quality of your staff I immediately booked my tour with NatHab.

Melissa, the tour guide was so pleasant, funny and knowledgeable that my time on the rest of the tour was very enjoyable. Fanny the van driver, very sweet and ALWAYS ready to help! After making myself sick (literally) with fear of falling through the ice, Ward spent most of the first day helping me around the ice and because of him I was able to lessen my fear enough to be able to move around to visit the pups.

While readying to leave the ice after one visit I asked Leo (the owner of the helicopter) straight out "Do you hunt Harp Seal white back pups?" Leo's response was "I hunt everything". Margaret, another traveler on the tour asked him another question which he answered. I asked him again if he hunted the Harp Seal white back pups? He looked around at the other people on the tour in the helicopter and nodded "yes" to me with a big smile on his face. Margaret questioned him further about his answer, but the engine was now going and I couldn't hear their conversation. Upon my return I informed Melissa about this conversation as soon as I landed.

In speaking with another traveler of the tour about what Leo had said to me, Sallie mentioned that Leo was poking a pup with the poles we used in the ice when she was near him out on the ice pan.

On the third flight out, right after disembarking from the helicopter I witnessed Rieu (I believe that is the guides name. Tall, shaggy beard) walking up to a pup who was trying very hard to get away from him by desperately wiggling away from him while barking at him with it's mouth open and head lifted towards him and yank the pup by the back flippers about 4 feet backwards and then jammed his fist straight armed into the pups back to make it hold still for the party of non NATHAB travelers he was with.

Leo was with MV and me on the pan this day as a guide and as we approached a pup Leo said to me in a VERY condescending manner and smirk on his face, “Do you think I would hurt these little guys?” I felt as though he was trying to see just how stupid I was.

I witnessed another guide, I do not know who, man handling pups on numerous occasions, so that a single man non NATHAB traveler he was with could get close to take a picture with the pup.

When we lifted off the pan Leo took the helicopter further out instead of coming back to land and while looking through his binoculars told us that he had finally found the 2 herd. I don’t believe for one second that finding the second herd was so that he could bring tourist to them.

After we finally turned towards land we flew directly over a kill pan. I saw huge amounts of blood and a white row boat. Leo flew us right over it! I leaned over to MV and told her I saw a hunter’s white row boat, but she couldn't have a conversation with me over the engine noise.

Upon landing Melissa met me to ask about the trip and I told her about Leo's comments and the fact that I had witnessed a kill pan. Melissa got very upset and told me that she was going to speak with Fanny. Fanny came to my room and asked me what I had seen. I told her about the kill pan and I also told her about the comments Leo had made to which she responded in shock, "Leo actually said that to you?" Fanny immediately got on the phone to her brother in the Fisheries and Oceans Protection department and they went out immediately to patrol the coast trying to catch the row boat coming ashore, but to my great disappointment they did catch the illegal hunter. Fanny told me not to mention anything to anymore in the group nor Leo or Ward, which I abided by. I completely understand why she asked me for my silence...I'm sure there would be those who might want to warn those who were hunting the white backs illegally.

As the group was leaving the hotel in the morning the next day, Fanny pulled me aside and asked if I would give a statement to the authorities while at our lunch stop. I told her what ever I could do to help catch the hunter(s) I would do. When we arrived at the restaurant Melissa and I went into the van and I met with 2 Fishery Officers and explained what I had seen and gave a written statement. I asked Melissa if I should tell them about the conversations I had with Leo but Melissa said no. After giving my statement to the authorities, I went back into the restaurant and Melissa had told everyone what I was doing so several others in the group asked me what I had seen and started voicing their experiences while on the trip quietly around me at the table. We were quiet because I didn't want to ruin someone's trip with such horrible information and Ward was sitting 3 people down from me. During the conversation between us, Cheryl told me that on the second day, when Leo handed her the ice pole we were using to find blow holes he said, “Here’s your seal cub.” Troudy (spelling?) and Dave strongly voiced that they had very strong suspicions before this conversation that Leo was still an active seal hunter but didn't go into details.

I also want to tell you that the Harp Seal hunt was the elephant in the room for the whole trip. Those I spoke with in the group confirmed that no one on the Maggie's ever asked us "What did you see today? Are you enjoying your trip?".... nothing that would engage us in conversation about why we were there. Only one of the artisans we visited had any type of Harp Seal item for sale. No where in Quebec and only the hotel and one item at the pottery artisan’s on the Maggie's did any of us find any type of Harp Seal pup item for sale. It was VERY obvious to many of us that we were tolerated and not approved as to why we were on the island. This was a quiet tense while at the same time everyone was friendly, but just not engaging in why we were actually there for. It was very apparent to me that the Harp Seal pups are seen as a commodity… money to be made… an object, and not as a living part of Mother Nature.

Mr. Bressler I wanted to contact you for several reasons:

1) I am physically sick that even a penny of my money went towards any benefit of the owners/guides and pilots of the helicopters that were used on my trip.

2) I am compelled to inform you of my experience while on your tour. It is my duty as an advocate of the Harp Seals to inform you. What you do with the information that is up to you.

3) Melissa and Fanny were EXTREMELY supportive of my concerns and I felt they did everything they could to inform the authorities on my behalf.

4) I will be contacting every agency I can to inform them that the Maggie's and especially the teams associated with the helicopters are active pup hunters. Green Peace, PETA, WWF, HSI and any other agency I can find will be notified. I will also be contacting the Fishery Officer again regarding the conversations that Leo and I had. Again what they do with the information is up to them. I will tell you Mr. Bressler, if the authorities needed me to fly back to Canada to testify and recount my experience again I would pay for my flight out of my own pocket if it meant even one hunter being prosecuted.

I wanted you to know that my biggest fear about this trip was that I would be witness to a kill pan...as I said I know illegal activity DOES happen...I just didn't want to see the carnage of the beautiful animal I had just spent 34 years waiting to meet. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, out of all the 15 travelers on the tour I'm the one who had to see it. I am extremely angry at the helicopter teams because they used our tours to scout the pans to figure out where they could kill the most pups and not for our benefit. I feel dirty that because I paid to hire them and that I assisted them in finding their prey, which happens to be the animal I love so very much.

I hope that this information is a surprise to you and angers you. Your tour placed 15 people who adore and are enamored with these animals into the mouth of the beast. It would be as if you placed elephant lovers in the middle of a poacher’s camp. If you were aware of the helicopter teams being active hunters you should be ashamed of yourself to benefit financial from the death of these magnificent animals.

I am always open to continuing this conversation Mr. Bressler. If you have any questions or response, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you for allowing me to have this opportunity to write directly to you.

Yvonne

 


 

Response from Mr. Bressler

 

Hi Yvonne,

Thanks SO MUCH for your detailed letter! I am sorry I took so long to reply, I have been in meetings all day. There is nothing I do, however, more important than deal with this issue you are presenting. I do not have one single answer for you regarding this situation, like everything in conservation there are many gray areas. So I’ll just ramble on regarding seals, tourism and our involvement.

In 1987 the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) came to us to see if we would run Harp Seal Tours to replace the seal hunt that was ended due to Canada’s ban on the commercial hunt of whitecoats. What does that mean? It means that Dec 31, 1987 the Canadian government declared that there would be no more commercial hunt of baby seals—which are seals that have not been weaned. Landsmen could still hunt whitecoats for their own use, and commercial operations could still hunt harp seals so long as they were not whitecoats (10-14 days old). It was not perfect, but it was a start and IFAW felt that bringing tourists in to see the seals would be a great way for the locals to earn money to replace the loss of income, with the hope being that eventually the locals would begin to think of March as Seal Watch season rather than Seal Hunt season. For a while this seemed to be working. Through the late 80’s and early to mid to late 90’s we brought 400 or so tourists a year to see the harp seals. Local artists created fantastic sculptures and paintings (I have some!), people sold trinkets, etc. All the elements of eco-tourism were falling into place.

Then, in about 1995, IFAW slowed its marketing of the Seal Watch trips with the idea being that the tourism industry must stand on its own. After all, a visit to the seal herds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is an incredible adventure so the enticement for the general public should be there, right? Well, the demand was less than we anticipated and although NHA sunk tens of thousands of dollars into marketing these tours the numbers of visitors began to wane without IFAW’s financial support of seal watching’s marketing efforts. As numbers declined, we were also faced with several if not many poor ice years, making the operations of the trips difficult.

Up until around 2005 we continued to operate our own helicopters and our own operation, ensuring our seal guides—all ex-hunters who promised not to hunt again—performed in the most careful manner around the seals. Unfortunately, it became financially impossible to continue to bring in our own helicopters (they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars!) so, several years ago, we decided to use the helicopters from the Chateau Madelinot’s operation. This was not perfect as their guides were hunters who, unlike Ward and our guides, had not necessarily committed to stop hunting. Their attitude was different than ours so we had a choice—stop running seal trips or work with these people. The answer was somewhat easy for us as we felt that while we did not agree with how they handled things, there were laws in place to protect the seals and rules that require guides to behave in a certain manner. Most of their guides were very caring and understanding and we felt that we could help “watch” the others to ensure that they were participating by the rules. Basically, we were a pair of eyes on behalf of the seals and your email proves to me that this is indeed necessary!

With all of this in mind, I totally understand why you are upset. I am upset too, as is Melissa and Fanny. This entire issue is very confusing for all of us—here we are trying to help and there are those who seem to take joy in poking fun of our passion for these animals. Further, they are treating the animals with disrespect and, potentially, even hunting them once the tourists have gone. I truly thought we were beyond this but clearly there are those who do not think the way we do. So, once again we are left with the choice of what to do: stay or go. It is my feeling that we MUST stay, we must continue to visit these seals and try to build the tourist industry back up and show locals that there can be an alternative. Melissa and Fanny are presenting your report to authorities and we hope some changes can be made. We truly do.

Please keep in touch with me regarding any other thoughts you have. I have asked our staff to make sure that they follow up with you when we receive any information as to what is going to be done to change the operations. When that does happen, and when the seals are being treated with the respect they deserve, you will know that you have had a direct positive affect on their well-being. Thanks so much!!

Kind regards,

Ben Bressler
Founder & Director
Click here to read my travel bio

*Travel and Leisure’s Top Ten Tour Operators Worldwide
*Outside Magazine #1 Small Company in the US
*National Geographic Traveler Top Ten Travel Company
*Exclusive Travel Partner to WWF

Our Companies: Natural Habitat Adventures | Explorers' Corner | Asia360° Travel Co

 

PO Box 3065 • Boulder, CO, USA 80307 • 1-800-543-8917 • (Int’l) 303-449-3711 • Fax 303-449-3712

 

 


 

 

Emails sent between seal tourist Yvonne and Cheryl

 

Hi Cheryl,

Yeah I got on the sealers website and read about how they think the seals really are the cause of the cod numbers not coming back. It is sad that I am not sure how we could change the mind of the people. I wish more people would want to see them alive. Did you know that there was a store on the island that sold seal skin stuff? I saw it advertised in that map we got, uggggh.

Also, I came home and contacted 6-7 organizations in regards to what I saw while on the Island and one organization in particular has shown a lot of interest in my experience- HarpSeals.org. I was wondering, if you wanted to, could you e-mail me the conversation you had with Leo about the "harp seal club"?

... I totally believe in eco tourism too! I just wish we weren't exposed to helicopter teams of seal spotters and hunters. I'm just sick about giving one penny to them. The idiotic comments from the hotel concierge just shows how many decades Canada is behind us in awareness of the environment. HarpSeals.org seems to be all about ending the hunt.

Take care,

Yvonne

 


 

 

This is what happened: I got out of the helicopter and was getting those spikes put on my boots... I asked for a pole and Leo looked at me and said "you mean your seal club" and I told him it was not funny. I told you I talked to Melissa about it and she said he does not still hunt and has an odd sense of humor. I did not think it was funny. Who knows. I am pretty sure none of us tipped him.

I still believe ecotourism is important and want people to have the experience of being able to see the seals. I am actually madder at that stupid concierge in the hotel that said "I am for the cod".

Cheryl

 


 

Natural Habitat Adventures Cancels Seal Tours

As a result of Yvonne's relentless pursuit of justice for the seals, including presenting Harpseals.org with the emails to publicize the duplicity of Natural Habitat Adventures and sending a formal complaint to the Better Business Bureau, Natural Habitat Adventures announced in October 2012, that it would end the seal tours as long as operating these tours meant supporting sealers.

Below is the text of the emails between Yvonne and the Natural Habitat Adventures staff.

Email from Natural Habitat Adventures:

Dear Ms. [last name of Yvonne withheld to protect her privacy],

My name is Ted Martens, I lead Natural Habitat's sustainability and
communications efforts. I know you’ve had some detailed discussions with our director, Ben Bressler, about your experiences on our Harp Seal Watch earlier this year. I want to thank you again for your concern for the seals and your interest in protecting them. As a company committed to conservation and ecotourism, we believe it is our duty to protect the species and environments that host our guests, and when certain areas of our operation – even those out of our direct control – are not living up to our standards, it’s imperative that we take action to remedy the situation. Since the time you had your conversations with Ben, and after months of negotiations and discussions with the local suppliers in Canada, it has become clear to us that we cannot convince them to adhere to our standards of wildlife protection, nor can we control who they choose to hire as part of their staff. As a result, we have decided to suspend our Harp Seal Watch tour and all of our operations in the Magdelen Islands. While this is a great disappointment to us – we still truly believe that ecotourism is the most viable alternative to the hunt – after the events of the past Seal Watching season, we recognize that the people in the islands are not at this time willing to make a change to a sustainable industry such as tourism.

I hope you are pleased with our decision, and I respectfully request that you
recognize our efforts to address the situation in the complaints you have filed against us in various outlets such as the Better Business Bureau and
Harpseals.org.

If you have any questions whatsoever, please don’t hesitate to contact me or Ben.

Sincerely,

Ted

Ted Martens
Sustainability Director
Natural Habitat Adventures

*Travel and Leisure’s Top Ten Tour Operators Worldwide
*Outside Magazine #1 Small Company in the US
*National Geographic Traveler Top Ten Travel Company
*Exclusive Travel Partner to WWF Our Companies:

Natural Habitat Adventures • PO Box 3065 • Boulder, CO 80307 • 1-800-543-8917

 



Response from Yvonne:

Good Morning Mr. Martens-

Thank you for your e-mail. I am satisfied with Natural Habitat's decision to suspend the Harp Seal tours. Considering that Natural Habitat has known that the helicopter pilots hired each season are in allegiance with or hunters themselves for years, I feel that this recent decision to suspend the tour is only because of the spotlight that I've placed on the situation. Regardless, I am relieved that at least one less entity will not be profiting from the slaughter of these innocent and helpless creatures.

Eco tourism and exposure of the truth of what is happening to the earth is really the only way to educate people and help them to understand what is going on; what we (as people) are doing to impact the ecosystems and creatures we coexist with. Eco tourism only works as it should if the companies running the tour support and are an advocate for the protection of the creatures the tour is of. If the tour company does not protect or advocate for the creatures it is not eco tourism it is exploitation.

Thank you again for your e-mail and for suspending the Harp Seal tours.

 

Yvonne

 

 

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