Promotional images of E-Land Cruise’s daytime river cruises feature seagulls. (E-Land Cruise)
As a cruise ferry on Han River was about to leave the dock on a Tuesday afternoon in June, dozens of seagulls began to gather around.
Some sat on the top rails of the ship while others began to fly around as passengers started to come out to the deck. Once the engine starts, you get the sense what they are here for.
People were holding snacks with their fingers or throwing them for the birds to eat.
Laughter and joyful scream filled the ship as people of all age groups -- from elderly people to children and their parents – took part in the activity. The excitement was in the air. It lasted the entire 40-minute ride.
A passenger on aboard a river cruise ferry in Han River feeds a seagull. (Yim Hyun-su/The Korea Herald)
“The first time that I saw Koreans feeding seagulls, it was during the Han River cruise. I didn’t understand it because in my country, it’s normally illegal to feed animals, especially wild animals,” said Adrian Pacin from Spain who has been living in Seoul for the last few months.
“Seeing everyone doing it and the cruise being about that – you have snacks prepared for that and all --, I was quite astonished because it’s something very particular.”
While searching for seagulls on YouTube come back with videos with negative words in titles such as “thief” or “evil,” they appear to be largely loved by people living in big cities in South Korea who see them as animals they can feed.
The act of feeding them as a form of entertainment is so well established that it is being promoted as one of the highlights by Seoul’s famous river cruises.
“A trip through downtown Han River. You can feed seagulls,” reads the sign near the deck of E-Land Cruise, an operator of cruises around the river.
A sign near the river cruise dock in Seoul reads ““A trip through downtown Han River. You can feed seagull.” (Yim Hyun-su/The Korea Herald)
Feeding seagulls, a perk reserved for daytime rides, has been well received by the passengers, said Kim Jae-suk, the marketing department manager at E-land’s Hangang Cruise department.
“Many people think there are no seagulls at Han River but you’ll see that there are quite a few of them. It’s a popular program,” he said.
“Cruises in Europe and other countries offer a lot more to see on the riverside and rivers are much narrower. But Han River is much wider and has less sightseeing to offer during the day.
“What makes us different is that we have many seagulls,” Kim said.
Kwon Hyuk-doo, secretary general of the Korean Association For Bird Protection, explained that seagulls know what they are doing.
Seagulls sit on the rails of a river cruise ferry. (Yim Hyun-su/The Korea Herald)
“They are instinctively aware that when they come to the cruise ferry, they will continue to be fed and not be in harm’s way,” he said.
“If people on the ferry stopped feeding them and there is no cause and effect, seagulls will stop chasing after them. It appears that (the relationship) began by people feeding the birds.”
When did feeding seagulls become a thing?
Though the origin of feeding seagulls for fun is unclear, but it must have been around for at least 20 years, judging from an old TV ad by South Korean foodmaker Nongshim. In fact, this particular company known for its popular shrimp-flavored cracker Saeukkang has clearly capitalized on the phenomenon over the years.
In the 2001 ad, a group of people on a boat fed Saeukkang crackers to seagulls. The catchphrase was “Even seagulls enjoy the taste of Saeukkang when I didn’t know.”
“Though the exact time is not clear, it seems that feeding seagulls Saeukkang became a popular thing to do on the beaches and harbors. It seems the link between the two came naturally,” one official at the company said.
Nongshim‘s 2001 TV ad for its snack Saeukkang (Nongshim)
The snack has become so heavily associated with seagulls in the country that there were even voices worrying about the possible negative impact on the birds’ health.
Some have opted for healthier options like anchovies.
E-Land Cruise, for instance, sell bags of anchovies aboard the ship for seagulls as the river cruise operator says Saeukkang can be bad for the birds, giving them “diarrhea.”
Kwon said it is hard to conclusively say whether it is safe or not to feed snacks with food additives and chemicals to seagulls. But he said feeding them snacks for a short period of time while on a short cruise ride should be okay.
“It can be an experience for people to learn that they are co-existing with animals. For birds, it is also helpful when there is a shortage of food.”
When asked about why seagulls are more liked than other birds like pigeons, bird expert Kwon said it is because seagulls are not affecting the lives of people living in big cities.
Fishermen and fish farmers do not like seagulls because they steal the fish they caught. But for people in cities, they are a bird that takes food from their fingers, which many find to be fun, he said.
“People in cities dislike pigeons, farmers dislike sparrows and fishermen dislike seagulls because they are not directly affected by them.”
By Yim Hyun-su (firstname.lastname@example.org