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Harbor Seal
Harbor Seal
Phoca vitulina  
Walking along Puget Sound beaches, you may see an earless harbor seal face rise from the water. Harbor seals are the most abundant marine mammal along Puget Sound. Although curious, they are shy animals and prefer quiet, unpopulated areas.

Hauling Out

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. On land however, seals wiggle and flop along. (Harbor seals do not have rotating hind foreflippers for walking like sea lions.)

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 and 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. The highest mortality rate for harbor seals occurs during the first few months of life; pups may be stillborn, premature, or they may starve.

Harbor seals need quiet places to rest and raise young.

Harbor Seal Facts

  • Winged Foot
    The harbor seal is the only pinniped that breeds along Puget Sound. Pinnipeds (seals, seal lions, and walruses) spend part of their lives in the water but depend on land to give birth and raise young. The term "pinniped" comes from the latin word "pinna" meaning winged and "ped" meaning foot.
  • Small & Spotted
    Adults are mottled tan or blue-grey with dark spots, measuring between four and seven feet long, weighing 250 to 300 pounds. To distinguish harbor seals from other pinnipeds along Puget Sound (California sea lions, Northern sea lions, and elephant seals) look for the harbor seal's small size, earless head, and spots.
  • Deep diver
    The harbor seal can plunge 300 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes. It can swim a fast 15 knots.
  • White Before Birth
    Most harbor seal pups shed a white wooly coat before they are born. Sometimes pups are born in the water. Pups can often swim after birth, when the tide returns.

    Protected by Law

    Harbor seals sometimes fall prey to orcas (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 from killing by the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is against the law to hunt, capture, kill, harass or otherwise disturb seals or any other marine mammal.

    A Harbor Seal 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 and other marine mammals. Do not harass, scare, or separate mothers from offspring. Boats should not come closer than 100 yards of marine mammals.
  • To report violations
    Report any violations to National Marine Fisheries Law Enforcement at 1­800­853­1964.
  • To report stranded marine mammals
    Dead or dying marine mammals can aid important research. If you find a stranded marine mammal, note the exact location and the condition of the animal. Call the NOAA Marine Mammal Coordinator at (206) 526-6733.
    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 mother and other adult seals away.

    Do not disturb baby seals
    Image courtesy of Washington Sea Grant Program.

    For your safety and the health of the pup, leave the pup alone. Do not touch! Do not wrap a pup in blankets (seals are protected by blubber and blankets will cause it to overheat.) Do not try to feed a pup. (Incorrect feeding can cause a pup to die.) Do not try to force a pup into the water. Keep pets and children away from a pup.

    Seeing Seals

    • Pupping season occurs during the summer and early fall, a peak time for boating and beach walking. Harbor seals are easily frightened of humans during this time. Please stay clear of seal haul outs and leave marine mammals in peace to raise their young.
    • If you'd like to observe harbor seals without disturbing them, watch them in the water from shore using binoculars or a scope. Or take a ferry ride through the San Juans at low tide. Watch seals on shore through binoculars.

    Related Links

    National Marine Mammal Laboratory, NOAA.
    Research and information about marine mammals.

    Marine Mammal Information - Pinnipeds (Seals, Sea Lions & Walrus) NOAA Fisheries. Species information, policy & management, and stewardship.

    Marine Mammal Protection Act, Legal Information Institute.
    Text of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

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    Comments? E-mail: Shellyne Grisham