Harbor Seal

Harbor Seal

Harbour seal, Common seal, Harbor, Harbour, Seal

Phoca vitulina
Population size
350-500 Thou
Life Span
25-30 years
Top speed
km/h mph 
kg lbs 
m ft 

The Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) is a true seal that lives along temperate and Arctic marine coastlines of the Northern Hemisphere. It is the most widely distributed species of pinniped (walruses, eared seals, and true seals). Harbor seals like to remain in familiar resting spots or haulout sites, where they are protected from adverse weather conditions and predation, near a foraging area. These animals used to suffer from hunting but now it is illegal in many nations within the animal's range.


The Harbor seal is relatively small in comparison with the many other seal species. Its color can vary from light gray, white, or yellowish-gray with darker spots, to gray, black, or brown with spots or light rings. Its fur is short and thick, with coarse guard hair and dense, fine underhair. They have a gland in their skin that secretes oil to waterproof their fur. A Harbor seal has a round head and a short snout with a V-shaped nose, which closes when underwater. Its eyes are big, round, and dark, it has ear openings, and long, droopy whiskers used for finding food underwater. Its front and hind flippers are short and webbed, and have five digits, with the first and fifth digits being longer than the middle ones. When its hind flippers are laid flat, they look like fans, and between them, it has a short, flattened tail.




Harbor seals live along Arctic coastlines and are also found in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Baltic Sea, so are usually well spread out. A small number has also been seen in the North Sea. The Californian coasts are also apparently gaining more harbor seals now. They are also found in New York’s harbor. Harbor seals frequently congregate in harbors, bays, sandy intertidal zones, and estuaries in pursuit of prey fish. They prefer to frequent familiar resting sites. Harbor seals may spend several days at sea and travel up to 50 km (31 mi) in search of feeding grounds, and will also swim more than a hundred miles upstream into fresh water in large rivers in search of migratory fish.

Harbor Seal habitat map

Climate zones

Harbor Seal habitat map
Harbor Seal
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Habits and Lifestyle

Harbor seals are pinnipeds that are diurnal and usually solitary. They gather in small mixed groups of adult males, females, and pups during the pupping season and at the time of molting, but these groups show no social organization. They are not a migratory species but travel a couple of hundred kilometers from where they live to forage and breed, and sometimes to avoid environmental disturbances. Harbor seals haul out throughout the year, that is, they come out of the sea onto terrestrial grounds on icebergs or land. This provides the benefit of sites for birthing, rest, thermoregulation, and avoiding predators. Harbor seals generally molt 2 to 3 months after pupping, leading to high numbers of them in haul-out locations. The pups usually molt first, then the juveniles, then adult females, and lastly the adult males.

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

These seals are carnivorous (piscivorous) generalists, eating small to medium-sized fish, including cod, herring, and mackerel, as well as crustaceans, octopus, and squid. Shrimp is especially important for young Harbor seal pups.

Mating Habits

9-11 months
1 pup
4-6 weeks

Harbor seals are polygynous, with one male having exclusive mating rights with many females. The fights between males for access to mate with females take place in the water, lasting sometimes for many hours, the females mating with the winners of these battles. Males that are successful are able to mate with many females. The mating season goes from spring through autumn. A female will give birth to a single pup during spring, after a gestation period of 9-11 months. The newborn seal is covered in fur and is able to swim with its mother and go onto land after her within a few minutes of being born. Sometimes a pup will ride on its mother's back as she dives. After 4-6 weeks pups are weaned and have achieved independence. Males reach reproductive maturity between 3 to 7 years of age and females when they are about 3 to 6 years old.


Population threats

Humans hunt Harbor seals for their blubber, meat, skin, and fur. They are threatened by being tangled in fishing nets, especially in gillnets. They are sometimes killed by getting trapped in intake pipes in US power plants. Chemical and oil pollutants are further threats to this species.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, the total Harbor seal population size is 350,000 to 500,000 individuals, which includes estimates for subspecies of the Harbor seal: Eastern Atlantic Harbor seal - 65,000, Western Atlantic Harbor seal - 60,000, Eastern Pacific Harbor seal - 170,000, Kuril seal - less than 10,000, Western Pacific Harbor seals - around 3,000-3,500; Ungava seals - 120-600 individuals. Overall, Harbor seal numbers currently appear to be stable and it is classified as Least Concern (LC).

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Harbor seals can dive as deep as 427 m (1,400 ft) and stay underwater for almost 30 minutes. However, the average dive is a few minutes long and 91 m (298 ft) deep.
  • Harbor seals perform dives in a range of shapes. One recent study classified their dives into variations of U-shaped and V-shaped dives.
  • While swimming safely in the surf, Harbor seals will often curiously observe people walking on beaches. Nonetheless, when they are on land, they are wary of humans and rush into the sea if disturbed or approached too closely.
  • These seals are not very vocal, vocalizations are usually used just by young pups in communication with their mothers or for defense, or when displaying aggression.
  • Some Harbor seals live permanently in certain rivers and inland lakes in Canada.
  • Harbor seals prefer to stay close to the shore, one reason being so they can get onto land and warm up in the sun.

Coloring Pages


1. Harbor Seal Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harbor_seal
2. Harbor Seal on The IUCN Red List site - http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/17013/0

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