HARBOR SEALS (Phoca vitulina)
Written by: James Moore, DVM
Walking along Puget Sound beaches or sitting in your boat, you may see a curious earless harbor seal face rise from the water to check you out. Harbor seals are the most abundant marine mammal along Puget Sound. Although curious, they are shy animals and prefer quiet, unpopulated areas.
Seals are members of the Order Pinnipedia ( “pinniped” comes from the latin word “pinna” meaning winged and “ped” meaning foot) which is divided into two Families—Otariid or eared seals (Fur Seals, California Sea Lions, Elephant seals etc) and Phocid or earless seals (Harbor Seals).
Otariid seals can be identified by the presence of ear flaps, hind limbs that can rotate forward allowing for rapid movement on shore and large front flippers used for swimming. These seals have a uniform coloring to their fur. Think of those seals you have seen as circus performers.
Phocid seals have no ear flaps, their hind limbs cannot rotate forward giving them an awkward shuffling movement on shore and small front flippers. They swim primarily with their rear flippers. Their fur is typically spotted.
Seals like to “haul out” on protected beaches, spits, bars, rocks and log rafts to bask in the sun and sleep. At the slightest sign of danger they will slip back into the water where they swim with power and grace. Harbor seals can plunge 300 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes, attaining speeds up to 15 knots. On land however, harbor seals wiggle and flop along.
Harbor seals often haul out at low tide to digest food, rest, give birth, or nurse young. A high tide haul out is more typical along Hood Canal. Giving birth or “pupping” occurs in June or July along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands. In southern Puget Sound and Hood Canal, pupping takes place July through September. The mother nurses the pup with rich milk for three to six weeks.
PROTECTED BY LAW
Harbor seals sometimes fall prey to killer whales, sharks and people. From 1947 to 1960 a bounty was placed on seals because it was believed they ate significant amounts of commercially valuable fish. During that time it is estimated 17,000 seals were killed. Today, seals are protected by the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is against the law to hunt, capture, kill, harass, disturb or feed seals or any other marine mammal.
The highest mortality rate for harbor seals occurs during the first months of life. Pups may be stillborn, premature or starve as a result of parasites, infectious diseases and the effects of toxicity from polluted waters.
HARBOR SEALS ON YOUR BEACH?
Harbor seals may haul out almost anywhere along Puget Sound. One may appear on the beach near your home. Often, this is not an emergency—harbor seals naturally use the beach to rest, give birth, or die.
DO NOT DISTURB. It is against the law to disturb harbor seals or other marine mammals. Do not harass, scare, or separate mothers from offspring. Boats should come no closer than 100 yards of marine mammals.
REPORT VIOLATIONS. National Marine Fisheries Law Enforcement 1-800-853-1964 or to report stranded marine mammals call 1 206- 526-6733. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ole/nw_northwest.html
BABIES ON THE BEACH?
If you see a harbor seal pup alone on the beach, do not disturb them. It’s the law. Human encroachment can stress the pup and scare the adult seals away.
If you feel the pup is indeed stranded report the location to the above phone number and help encourage your neighbors and family pets to stay away from the area.
For your safety and the health of the pup, leave the pup alone. Do not touch! Do not wrap a pup in blankets (seals will quickly overheat). Do not try to force a pup into the water. Keep pets and children away from the pup.
If you would like to observe harbor seals without disturbing them, watch them in the water from the shore using binoculars, or take a ferry ride through the San Juan’s at low tide. Watch seals on shore with binoculars.