The Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) is a species occurring along coasts of the temperate and Arctic northern hemisphere (including Europe, Asia, and North America). Adult individuals attain lengths of up to 1.7 m and weigh between 100 and 150 kg. The seals are extremely good swimmers which can dive to depths of up to 200 m for around 30 minutes! While adults feed almost only on fish, juveniles also prey on crustaceans and molluscs. Although Harbor Seals are commonly seen lying together in groups at sand banks, they are solitary animals. Indeed, they show quite some aggression towards each other. During mating season, a group of males surround a female and try to initiate copulation by swimming on its back. Initially, the female will fend the males off by biting, but eventually one male will succeed and immobilise the female by biting in its neck – doesn’t sound very romantic to me?! It is this fighting stress which is believed to be responsible for the considerable shorter life spans of males which rarely become older than 25 years while females reach ages of 30 to 35 years.
Today, there are around 500,000 Harbor Seals living in our oceans. That is good news as these fascinating animals were drastically decimated in the 19th and 20th century. At the beginning, they were merely hunted for their meat and skin, lateron they were killed because people believed they ate too many fish. As if this would not already be bad enough, the seals also suffered strongly due to environmental pollutants. Nowadays populations still show major fluctuations, mainly because of the regular appearance of epidemics sometimes affecting thousands of seals in a particular area.
I have seen these elegant and pretty animals at several places. Most of the photos in this post are from the beaches of Helgoland, a small island in the North Sea of Germany, which I visited in September 2013 and May 2014. Additionally, I have spotted a few Harbor Seals at the coast of California during a journey in October 2009.