Cornforth Images

Harbor Seal

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are true seals found along temperate and Arctic marine coastlines of the Northern hemisphere. They are found in coastal waters of the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as those of the Baltic and North Seas, making them the most wide-ranging of the pinnipeds. Harbor seals are brown, tan, or gray, with distinctive V-shaped nostrils. An adult can attain a length of 6 ft (1.8 m) and a mass of 290 lbs (132 kg). Females outlive males (30-35 years versus 20-25 years). Harbor seals stick to familiar resting spots, generally rocky areas where land predators can’t reach them, near a steady supply of fish to eat. Males fight over mates underwater. Females mate with the highest males, then bear single pups, which they care for alone. Pups are able to swim and dive within hours of birth, and they grow quickly on their mothers’ milk. A fatty tissue called “blubber” keeps them warm. Their global population is estimated between 400,000-500,000, and subspecies in certain habitats are threatened. Seal hunting was once common but is now mostly illegal.
Harbor seals have a devotion to their choice of resting sites. They may spend several days at sea traveling up to 30 miles (50 km) in search of food. They will also swim some distance upstream into freshwater rivers. Resting sites may be both rugged, rocky coasts such as the shorelines of Puget Sound or New England, sandy beaches in California, or ice flows in the fjords of Alaska or the Arctic. Some seals may also enter estuaries in pursuit of fish. The seals frequently choose to congregate in harbours, lending the animals their other common name. Their feeding habits have been studied closely in many parts of their range, where they are known to prey primarily upon fish such as anchovy, sea bass, herring, and cod, and occasionally upon shrimp, mollusks and squid. They are able to dive for up to ten minutes, reaching depths of 1500 ft (457 m) or more, but average dives may be three minutes long at depths of about 66 feet (20 m).
Harbor seals must spend a great deal of time on shore when moulting (shedding off their fur), which the seals undergo shortly after breeding. This onshore time is important to the life cycle and can be disturbed when there is substantial human presence. A female will mate immediately following the weaning of her pup. They are sometimes reluctant to haul out in the presence of humans, so that shoreline development and access must be considered in known locations where seals haul out. Some of the best locations to photograph harbor seals include La Jolla, California, the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest, and Tracy Arm Fjord in Southeast Alaska.

Click on the following links to view images of the California Sea Lion, Northern Fur Seal, Steller Sea Lion, Guadalupe Fur Seal, Southern Elephant Seal, Sea Otter, and Walrus, or return to the Pinnipeds main gallery.

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