Harp Seals

About harp seals

Harp seals are found in the Arctic and in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. They live in the open sea but are also dependant on pack ice, where they breed and give birth. There are three major communities of harp seals – one breeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off the coast of Newfoundland, another north of the Jan Mayen islands in the Greenland Sea, and the third in the White Sea. Harp seals like to be with other seals, and tens of thousands of them will gather together during the breeding season. They are also found in large groups when migrating, feeding and resting.

Harp seals grow to be 1.6 to 1.9m long and 130-160 kg in weight. Males are silvery grey with a black head and a horseshoe-shaped band across the back and the flanks (the harp). Females have a lighter head and their "harp" is lighter and can be fragmented. Pups have a silky white fur at birth and moult after one week. After moulting they are silvery grey with irregular dark and black spots.

Seals are fast swimmers, and spend most of the year in the sea. Harp seals migrate south in the autumn and north in the summer, which can be a journey of up to 8,000 km total. They can also move very quickly across the ice.

Harp seals are known to eat at least 67 different species of fish and 70 species of invertebrates. The diets of these diverse eaters also vary according to age, season, location, and year. Despite claims to the contrary, it is clear that Atlantic cod, including the northern cod stock, are only a minor component of the annual harp seal diet.

Lives cut short

There is a very strong bond between mother seals and pups, who recognize each other by sound and smell. Female seals give birth to one pup each year. She will nurse her pup for a few days before going to sea to feed, leaving the pup in a nursery group or a protected area for three to five days. When she returns, she calls the pup with a distinctive bark that the pup will answer. The mother will continue this cycle of feeding and nursing for several weeks until the pup is old enough to swim and keep up with her. She will then bring the pup to sea with her, to teach it to swim, feed, and avoid predators. The pup will be weaned in a year, when the mother comes to shore to give birth to her next pup.

Sadly, thousands of the mothers return from feeding to find that their pup has been murdered at the age of just three weeks. The murder can even happen right before the mother’s eyes. The coats of baby seals are coveted by humans, and the Canadian government sanctions a commercial hunt every year that consists of bludgeoning and skinning as many of the helpless babies as possible in just a few days.

A species in decline

Seals are hunted by sharks, killer whales, polar bears, and walruses, but their greatest enemies, sadly, are human. Seals are a species threatened annually by over-hunting and an expanding and unregulated trade in seal products. Seal penis bones are sold for medicinal purposes in Asia, for example. Other potential threats to the seals include reduced availability of food due to over-fishing by humans or climate change, accidental catches in fishing gear, and maybe even environmental contaminants.

Did You Know?

  • Pups measure 90-105 cm and weigh 6-10 kg at birth. As they are nursed by their mothers they grow about 2kg per day.
  • Harp seals can live up to thirty-five years.
  • In the water, harp seals propel themselves by moving their hind flippers left and right. On land they move by hopping on their belly, without the support of their limbs.
  • Male harp seals develop their harp-like marking at the age of seven but the females do not until age 12.
  • Harp seals can dive to depths of over 275m and stay underwater for 15 minutes.
  • Fossils show us that seals existed during the Miocene era, about 20 million years ago.
  • Courting rituals of harp seals involve calling, blowing underwater bubbles, gesturing with flippers, and chases across the ice.

Click here for more information on the Commercial Seal Hunt.

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