Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc.

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Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina)

harbor seals atCupsogue, January 2014

Named common seal throughout Europe, this seal frequently observed around Long Island lives along the shores of eastern Canada, New England and in the winter, as far south as the Carolinas in a variety of habitats. Their scientific name loosely means "sea calf" or "sea dog." This latter nickname is well suited as these seals closely resemble a dog when their head is viewed at the surface of the water. Harbor seals can be viewed in small groups hauled out basking on sand bars, rocks or remote beaches, sometimes popping their heads up in thauled out harbor sealshe waters nearby. Usually wary of humans, they are known to follow fishing boats, feeding on the scraps thrown overboard and occasionally harbor seals will haul out on someone's dock or even in their boat.

When hauled out, harbor seals often lie with their heads and hind flippers elevated in what is often referred to as the "banana-like" position.     When resting in water, harbor seals can be seen in what we call the "bottling" position, with heads tilted straight back and perpendicular to the surface; thus assuming the appearance of a floating bottle.

harbor seal at Montauk, May 2004Male harbor seals generally grow to 5 - 5 feet in length, weighing 200 - 250 pounds, while the smaller females reach approximately 4 to 5 feet, weighing 150 - 200 pounds. Harbor seals are thought to live to at least 25 years. Males mature at 4 - 6 years, females earlier. Pups, weighing 12 -20 pounds and measuring about 2 feet, are born in the spring. Unlike many other seal pups, harbor seals are able to swim from birth, although they are dependent on care and milk from the mother for 3 - 6 weeks before they venture out on their own. While tending their young, harbor seal mothers are very protective and will sometimes push the pup beneath the surface or carry it on her shoulders to avoid danger.  Harbor seals have been shown to dive as deep as 600 meters; their average dive time is 2 minutes and the maximum dive time is 15 minutes (see Costa and Williams. 1999.  Marine Mammal Energetics. (figures 5-25 and 5-26) in  Reynolds III, J. E., and S. A. Rommel (eds). 1999. Biology of marine mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press).

Harbor seals, like most other seal species, migrate southward every winter, returning to New England and Canada in the summer. On Long Island a large influx of these seals arrive in November and remain through mid- May, although some are thought to stay throughout the year.


CRESLI's photo-identification catalog of harbor seals at Cupsogue Beach

Dr. A. Kopelman has been compiling a catalog of harbor seals that utilize the haul out site at Cupsogue beach (near Moriches Inlet).  As of February 2014, the catalog contains 70 seals that are identifiable based upon pelage marking patterns.  Several of these seals have returned every year, since 2006, other have returned less frequently but stll return to use that site. The catalog is part of an on-going long term study of site fidelity and population dynamics. Samples photos from 60 identified and named seals cab be seen at http://drartiek-cresli.smugmug.com/Pinnipeds/Cupsogue-Identified-harbor


The following is excerpted from the December 2012, NOAA Fisheries Stock Assessment Report for the Western North Atlantic Stock. 

"The harbor seal is found in all nearshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean and adjoining seas above about 300N...  In the western North Atlantic, they are distributed from the eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland south to southern New England and New York, and occasionally to the Carolinas. Stanley et al. (1996) examined worldwide patterns in harbor seal mitochondrial DNA, which indicate that western and eastern North Atlantic harbor seal populations are highly differentiated. Further, they suggested that harbor seal females are only regionally philopatric, thus population or management units are on the scale of a few hundred kilometers. Although the stock structure of the western North Atlantic population is unknown, it is thought that harbor seals found along the eastern USA and Canadian coasts represent one population (Temte et al. 1991). In USA waters, breeding and pupping normally occur in waters north of the New Hampshire/Maine border, although breeding occurred as far south as Cape Cod in the early part of the twentieth century (Temte et al. 1991; Katona et al. 1993)."

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