Harbor Seals: Phoca vitulina
Harbor seals are marine mammals called pinnipeds, which means "fin-footed." Like all members of the true seal family (Phocidae), harbor seals lack external ear flaps, have short fore flippers, and have hind flippers that extend directly behind the plump body. When on land, harbor seals move their bodies like inchworms; when swimming, they scull with their hind flippers. These characteristics distinguish seals from sea lions (Otariidae - eared seals), which have external ear flaps and hind flippers that rotate forward, allowing them to walk on "all fours." Also unlike seals, sea lions use their large fore flippers to propel themselves when swimming.
At the Virginia Aquarium
The Aquarium has five male harbor seals. Peter, Piper, Phoca and Norton are brothers who were born at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and then joined us at the Aquarium in 1996. Hector is the youngest and newest addition to our harbor seal family.
The Harbor Seal Pool is located at the entrance to the Bay & Ocean Pavilion. The pool is designed so you can observe the seals when they are swimming and when they haul out on the rocks. You can also watch feeding and behavioral training sessions at 3 p.m. each day. Through positive reinforcement, the seals learn to perform behaviors that help us to care for them and to give medical treatment as needed. While watching the seals, you may notice them playing with balls, ice blocks, and other "toys" in the Harbor Seal Pool. We provide these items for enrichment, just as you might give your own dog or cat a toy. Another enrichment opportunity is the Harbor Seal Splash, a program that gives Aquarium guests the chance to interact directly with the seals.
Harbor seals, usually juveniles, are visitors to Virginia's coastal waters in winter and spring. Other species known to occur in our area are grey seals, hooded seals, and harp seals. Seals are common sights in New England waters, where large groups haul out on rock ledges, but are less common here. Most seal sightings in Virginia are of an individual animal popping its head out of the water, or sitting on the beach or on someone's dock. If you encounter a seal on land or water, please do not disturb the animal. If you think the animal is sick or injured, call the Aquarium's Stranding Response Center at 757-385-7575. Seals are wild animals and may bite if approached.
Harbor Seals Worldwide
The most common species in the U.S. and one of the world's most widespread pinnipeds, harbor seals live in the Northern Hemisphere along the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific coasts. They prefer shallow coastal waters where beaches and rocks are exposed at low tide.
The estimated harbor seal population in the U.S. is 29,000 to 35,000 and is increasing. In the U.S., all marine mammals, including seals, are protected from harm by the Marine Mammal Protection Act; however, in other parts of the world, seals are hunted for food and fur. Significant threats to seals in U.S. waters are pollution and fishing activities. For example, seals can become entangled in or ingest plastics, or are accidentally trapped in fishing gear.
Harbor Seal Facts
Size: Male - 5 to 6 ft. long; weight to 300 lbs. Female - 4 to 5 ft. long; weight to 200 lbs.
Diving depth and duration: to 500 ft.; hold breath for almost 30 minutes
Speed: reach up to 12 mph when swimming
Life span: 15 to 30 years
Diet: fish such as herring and capelin; also eat squid and shellfish
If you find a stranded marine mammal, report it immediately to the Aquarium's Stranding Response Center (757) 385-7575 or your local marine animal rescue center.
Behind the Scene with Harbor Seals:
This 60-minute program will allow guests as young as three to venture into the restricted harbor seal holding area to meet some of the Aquarium educators, professional animal training staff and, of course, a seal or two. Learn more.