Please select your home edition
Vaikobi 2019AUG - Leaderboard 1

Harps seals: Rare visitors to New England shores

by NOAA Fisheries 21 Mar 16:57 UTC
Healthy adult harp seal in Maine (taken with a telephoto lens). © Morgan Quimby / Marine Mammals of Maine

While we're used to seeing harbor and gray seals in New England, sometimes we get seal visitors from the Arctic. In late winter, it's not unusual—though it is rare—to see adult harp seals on our beaches.

Harp seals, named for the black pattern on the adults' backs that early scientists thought resembled a musical harp, are true seals. They have short flippers, which they use to move in a caterpillar-like motion on land, and do not have external ear flaps.

Harp seals can dive up to 1,300 feet below the surface and remain underwater for about 16 minutes. They most commonly feed on capelin, Arctic cod, and polar cod, but will eat many kinds of fish and invertebrates. In fact, some have been found with more than 65 species of fish and 70 species of invertebrates in their stomachs!

Like other seals, harp seals "haul out" regularly in between their time in the ocean feeding and migrating. This means they come out of the water to rest on islands and beaches, often by themselves and not in large groups. Hauling out allows seals to regulate their body temperature, particularly after long dives. Hauling out on the beach allows seals to get rid of excess heat through their hind flippers and other surface areas. But sometimes, hauling out can invite unwanted attention.

Seals belong on beaches

It's a call our marine mammal stranding response teams dread: A well-meaning person is trying to "save" a seal on a beach. Most recently, a healthy adult harp seal hauled out on a quiet New England beach for a nap.

Away from the action, we watched a Facebook livestream with growing anxiety. A person with a dog happened upon the seal, and was walking all around it. The person approached within feet, talking to the seal loudly while the dog barked nearby. The seal waved flippers, rolled on its back, and started eating rocks—all signs of stress. The person kept approaching, speaking at high volume, and was desperately seeking a bucket to pour water on it.

All the while, Facebook supporters provided well-meaning but bad advice. They suggested the person could feed it sardines because they misinterpreted this seal's behavior. Since it was eating rocks (a common sign of stress in ice-eating harp seals), they thought it must be hungry. They also applauded the person for ignoring pleas from local officials to leave it alone or give it some space, and some even suggested moving the seal back to the water.

The story has a happy ending. A stranding response team member arrived and educated the well-meaning person with a pamphlet about seals, and normal resting behavior. The responder observed the seal and confirmed that this seal had a minor injury on a flipper and should be monitored, but did not seem to need any medical intervention at the time.

Sharing the shore with seals

While harp seals might be rare, seeing seals on Atlantic beaches is quite common. You can help us spread the word: share the shore with seals! Tell your friends, especially bird-watchers, dog walkers, beach walkers, and boaters!

  • They are mammals like us, and breathe air. There is no need to push a seal back into the ocean or pour water on it.
  • Seals normally rest on beaches or rocky areas to stay healthy and recover from periods of swimming and hunting. Getting too close causes them stress, so give them plenty of space.
  • You should never feed seals, or any other wildlife for that matter. It can lead to aggressive behavior and illness. Plus, it's illegal to feed seals or other marine mammals and you could be fined.
Report sightings or injuries

If you are concerned about a seal—if it looks injured or sick—call the NOAA hotline at (866) 665-7722 or your local stranding network. Stranding response organizations have dedicated, trained responders who care about the animals and know what to look for.

Related Articles

North Carolina Living Shoreline Projects
NOAA and North Carolina Coastal Federation worked together to promote the use of living shorelines A partnership between NOAA and the North Carolina Coastal Federation to build living shorelines has helped restore and protect more than 6,200 feet of shoreline. Posted on 4 Apr
Understanding ocean changes and climate now harder
PDO and NPGO are not as effective at predicting environmental and ecological change as in the past A new study shows that two important indicators for understanding and predicting the effects of climate variability on eastern North Pacific marine ecosystems are less reliable than they were historically. Posted on 29 Mar
Hurricane response fund for marine debris removal
Severe storms can cause significant marine debris NFWF and NOAA's Marine Debris Program today announced $8.2 million in six new grants for the assessment, removal and proper disposal of marine debris that was caused by hurricanes Michael and Florence in Florida and North Carolina. Posted on 27 Mar
Harassment of harbor seal leads to penalty
Washington man admits pursuing, shooting at harbor seal with an air rifle A Ferndale, Washington, man has agreed to pay a penalty of $5,625 for pursuing a harbor seal in the San Juan Islands while shooting at it with an air rifle. Posted on 19 Mar
Hope for coral reef recovery in American Samoa?
Scientists return to O'ahu after assessing coral reef communities For three weeks in January, we conducted coral reef surveys in Vatia Bay and Faga'alu Bay on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa. Our small but mighty team collected data on coral condition and benthic community composition at 60 sites. Posted on 6 Mar
Why do whales migrate?
Skin molt may drive migration for whales that forage in cold waters Whales undertake some of the longest migrations on earth, often swimming many thousands of miles, over many months, to breed in the tropics. The question is why—is it to find food, or to give birth? Posted on 28 Feb
Unmanned surface vehicles track marine mammals
Scientists successfully tested the feasibility of using Saildrones Scientists successfully tested the feasibility of using Saildrones to follow individual fur seals over long distances while simultaneously assessing their prey and habitat. Posted on 23 Feb
Type D: A new species of killer whale?
Biologists launched an expedition, searching for what could be a new species of killer whale In January 2019, an international team of scientists working off the tip of southern Chile got their first live look at what might be a new species of killer whale. Posted on 15 Feb
International whales of mystery
Where are the 'missing' breeding areas for humpback whales? Every year, humpback whales in the western Pacific Ocean migrate south to winter breeding grounds. Some whales spend their winters in the waters of the Mariana Archipelago, but we know less about humpback whales in the Marianas. Posted on 8 Feb
U.S. & Canada work to reduce whale mortalities
United States and Canada have a shared interest in recovering right whales A message from NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver, who recently participated in a meeting with Canadian officials focused on the conservation and management efforts for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Posted on 1 Feb
Sailing Holidays 2019 - BOTTOMGJW Direct - Yacht 2019 - FooterNorth Sails 2019 - NSVictoryList - Footer