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Learn About Seals

Six species of seals inhabit Canadian waters; bearded seals, grey seals, harbour seals, hooded seals, ringed seals, and the subject species of this website, of course, harp seals.

Harp seals are beautiful!
Harp seals in their natural habitat.
Photos: Ian Robichaud, Ignacio Aronovich, Brooke McDonald

The two types of seals slaughtered year after year in the commercial seal 'hunt' of Canada are the harp seal and the hooded seal. By far, the harp seal is the principal species hunted...

Harp Seal Quick Facts

Harp seals are named for a marking on the seals' fur (seen after moulting)

Taxonomy:

Family: Phocidae (true, earless seals)

Genus: Pagophilus

Species: groenlandicus

Anatomy:

Harp seals move on ice by pulling themselves with their front flippers, which have strong claws. Their hind flippers do not rotate and have smaller claws.

Life span:

About 35 years

Range:

North Atlantic and Arctic oceans

Population groups:

Three breeding populations exist - those in the White Sea, those in waters off Norway (the 'West Ice' group), and those in the Northwest Atlantic waters of Canada.

Migration patterns:

Thousands of harp seals in the Northwest Atlantic subpopulation group migrate in groups each year from waters around Baffin Island (located in the territory of Nunavut) to their birthing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and to waters around Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. They leave the Arctic waters in the fall and reach their birthing grounds from December to February, where they disperse and feed intensively. After whelping, as the ice recedes, the harp seals migrate back to the Arctic.

Life cycle:

Ragged jacket harp seal - photo HSUS
Ragged jacket harp seal pup. Photo: HSUS

Born in the spring on ice packs, harp seal pups go through 6 life stages:

Yellowjacket: Newborn pups with white fur tinted yellow from placental fluid are born weighing about 24 lbs. and measuring almost 3 feet long.

Whitecoat: After a few days, the yellowish tint disappears, and the pups have a fluffy white fur coat. They nurse on their mothers high-fat milk (containing about 45% fat) and triple their weight to over 75 lbs. in about 12 days. Mothers recognize their pups in the herd by their smell.

Ragged/Raggedy Jacket: After the pups are weaned at about 2 weeks of age, they start to moult in patches, leaving a dense silver-grey fur with black spots. The pups do not eat after being weaned until they begin to swim and find food on their own. This can take six weeks.

Beater: After about 18 days, the harp seal's white coat is completely moulted. They start to learn how to swim by beating the water with their front flippers, leading to the name 'beaters'.

Bedlamer: Immature seals were given this name in the 15th or 16th century by the Basque and Breton settlers in the Strait of Belle Isle. The term comes from the French 'Betes de la mer' (Animals of the Sea).

Adult: Males reach maturity at about 7-8 years of age. Females reach maturity at about 4-6 years of age.

Diet:

Polar cod, capelin, herring, halibut, small crabs, shrimp

Adult Weight:

220 - 320 lbs.

Adult Length:

4.6 - 6.6 ft.

 

Seal Conservation

Harp seals are ice seals. They are dependent on sea ice for whelping. Thus they are threatened by global climate change. Read more about seals and conservation issues here.

For information on the U.S. program of targeted killing of harbor seals and sea lions ostensibly to protect threatened and endangered salmonids, visit this page.

 

For more information about harp seals and other species of seals visit the following sites:

NOAA Pinniped Information

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

Seal Conservation Society

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