(Otherwise known as Harbor Seals)
Most often we see them in the distance, lying on the cold, knee-slicing granite with salt water drying on their fur, looking content as can be to bask in the sun. Sometimes their inquisitive faces pop up alongside our boats or even peer at us from afar at the beach. Who amongst us has not said something inviting to a seal in an attempt to communicate with them like we do with our pets? They seem so familiar, with their dog-like faces and inquisitive air.
Seal species we see in the coastal waters of New England include the harbor, gray, harp, and hooded seals, depending on the time of year. Harbor Seals are year-round residents of the east coast. It is normal for seals of all these species to be seen on land as they rest and digest their food. The distinguishing feature of the harbor seal is a short, blunt, dog-like snout. Their coloring varies, but they are generally a light to dark gray with darker spotting. Males tend to be larger than females, measuring approximately 5 feet and weighing up to about 250 pounds.
Pup season for harbor seals runs from May into June, and it is not unusual to see pups lying on the shore, waiting for their mothers to return and nurse them. In fact it may sometimes appear as though a pup has been deserted, since they may stay in one place for up to 24 hours before their mother returns. The mothers’ milk is as thick as toothpaste, being super high in fat to support the young pup through its early life stages in cold Atlantic waters.
Harbor seals can crawl and swim almost immediately after they are born, often within an hour of birth, which is useful for pups born in intertidal areas. The pups nurse for just three to four weeks before striking out on their own, or more often, joining a band of juveniles.
Impressively, harbor seals dive and feed at depths of 500 feet and more. They can stay underwater for more than 25 minutes at a time. They eat a variety of fish and shellfish and crustations, including lobsters. Their pectoral flippers have 5 webbed digits with claws used for scratching, grooming, and defense.
Since 1972, harbor seals have been protected from hunting and harassment by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A recent estimate by NOAA Fisheries put their population in the waters of New England and Maritime Canada at more than 75,000. Currently, the biggest threats to harbor seals, besides natural predators like sharks, are posed by human activities – including fishing gear entanglement, boat traffic near nursery sites, and habitat destruction.
If you do see an animal that seems sick or in distress, the National Marine Fisheries Service recommends that any stranded animal be left alone to avoid stressing the animal further. It is against the law to handle a marine mammal without proper authorization or be closer than 300 feet at any time.
To report any stranded marine mammal, or if a seal appears to be abandoned, comes to shore on a crowded beach, or shows signs of illness or injury, notify the Maine Marine Animal Reporting Hotline at 1-800-532-9551. Follow the directions to ensure your call is directed to the appropriate responder.
Photos: Swimming seal by Marc Schulman. Basking harbor seal and pup by Natalie Norris.