Geographical Range North Atlantic and Pacific oceans
Habitat Ocean waters, sandy or rocky coastlines
Scientific Name Phoca vitulina
Conservation Status Common

Range and habitat

Harbor seals love the cold water, and are commonly found in the coastal waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They are usually seen inhabiting shallow areas where there are sand bars, rocks, and beaches uncovered during low tides or otherwise easily accessible.

The Real Seal

Sea lions, seals and walruses are marine mammals belonging to an order, or group, called pinnipeds, which means “fin-footed” or “wing-footed.”

Like all “true” seals, harbor seals lack external ear flaps and are unable to rotate their hind flippers forward. Since they can’t walk on land, they move about in an inchworm-like motion.

A harbor seal’s diet primarily consists of herring, flounder, and perch; however, a seal will also enjoy octopus, squid and shrimp.

Appearance and Characteristics

Male and female harbor seals are very close in size. Adult males range from 4.5 to 6.5 feet long and weigh 154 to 375 pounds. Females average from 4 to 5.6 feet long and weigh 110 to 331 pounds.

The dark rings and spots seen on their coats serve as identification tools similar to a human's finger prints – these markings are unique to that individual.

A harbor seal’s coat is short and thick, consisting of coarse guard hairs and finer, denser under-hairs. The hair itself provides no insulation; it's the seal's multiple layers of blubber that provide insulation and a heat gradient from the body's core to its skin. The blubber also provides the seal with buoyancy and energy reserves.

Like sea lions, harbor seals use their sensitive whiskers to find food, especially in dark, deep waters, or at night. They have a complex nerve system that transmits information from their whiskers to their brain.

Harbor seals can stay submerged for up to 30 minutes. Even a two-day-old pup can stay under water for up to two minutes.

Harbor seals are the least vocal of all pinnipeds, vocalizing mainly underwater for mating. Above water, they may snort, hiss, growl or sneeze – often as a threat to other seals.

Sustainable Seafood and Ocean Conservation

All marine mammals are protected by the federally regulated Marine Mammal Protection Act. Though harbor seals are listed as “common” and not currently endangered in the wild, other marine species are.

Ocean animals are often accidentally caught during commercial fishing for other fish. It’s important that consumers purchase seafood from suppliers that farm or fish in ways that will ensure the long-term health of the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. Visitors can pick up a Midwest Seafood Watch Pocket Guide at the Zoo for a list of recommended seafood choices (and those that are not recommended). Download a Sea Food Watch card.

Here are a few ways that humans can make a difference for marine mammals and other ocean inhabitants:

Dispose of waste properly, and avoid using plastic bags – it can all end up in the ocean.

  • Conserve water and energy use.
  • Recycle paper, plastic, aluminum and glass.
  • Reduce the amount of chemicals used on lawns and gardens.
  • Eat seafood products that are sustainable.
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle. Pass it on!