One of the delights of my Port Townsend life is watching harbor seals. Looking out at the sea while walking along a beach, I love to notice a seal gazing at me with its enormous eyes. I love to find seals frolicking by a dock and diving for fish. I love to see groups of seals resting with their pups on a shore.
A Curious Harbor Seal
Once a harbor seal bumped my kayak, swam upside down under it six times, then surfaced and stared at me from a few feet away. Whenever I’m close to them, I imagine myself a selkie, a mythological seal-woman, and I call “hello” to them in a sing-song voice. They seem to listen.
Unlike our local sea lions, the Pacific Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina ssp. richardii) is part of the “true seal” family. All true seals have short forelimbs, or flippers. Instead of the sea lion’s external ear flap, true seals have a small hole on both sides of their head. And they have long whiskers, which they use like a cat, but underwater. The harbor seal is the most common marine mammal in the Salish Sea, and it’s good to know they’ve been (mostly) protected in the US and Canada since the 1970s. NOAA created a nationwide Stranded Marine Mammal Network, with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center (PTMSC) serving as our regional coordinator. PTMSC’s Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson says, “About 80 percent of all stranding responses are for harbor seals and half of those are seal pups (vs adults).”
Kingston Ferry Seal
Harbor seals have short snouts, similar to some dogs and bears, their common ancestors. Individual seals can be recognized from their color and their spots. This seal greeted me as I peered down from the Kingston ferry, sporting an unusual yellowish coat with brown spots.
Young Harbor Seal by Pier
The color of their fur varies, but most harbor seals are light tan, mottled silvery-gray or blue-gray with dark spots, like this juvenile. I knew this three-foot seal below the PTMSC pier was a juvenile, as it clearly hadn’t reached the adult size of five to six feet, weighing 180 to 285 pounds.
Harbor Seal at Pt. Hudson
A few weeks ago, a friend and I walked beside the Pt. Hudson marina and watched this young harbor seal diving, surfacing belly up, then floating on its back for several minutes (we thought quite blissfully), before doing it again, over and over. Then we saw a huge school of small fish, and realized each dive included a quick snack. I later learned that their ventral field of vision (a “vision-for-perception” pathway in the brain) is limited, so they often forage by swimming upside down, providing a wider visual field.
With binoculars, from Ft. Flagler you can see hundreds of harbor seals resting, or hauled out, on Indian Island. During a PTMSC Puffin Cruise around Protection Island, you can see them hauled out along the shore. Hauling out allows them to regulate their body temperature, molt, socialize with other seals, give birth, and nurse their pups. Both locations provide plenty of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans for them to catch in the surrounding waters. These islands help them avoid aquatic predators, mostly transient killer whales that eat seals, and other dangers like boats and people. Scientists have found that kayaks and powerboats, especially stopped powerboats, disturb harbor seals. Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge requires all boats to stay 200 yards away, and like all my Protection Island photos, this photo was taken from that distance with a zoom lens and later cropped.
By the time they’re two to three days old, harbor seals can dive for up to two minutes, and at one month of age they can swim over 100 miles. Eventually they can dive to 1,600 feet and dive or even sleep underwater for half an hour. However, most stay within five miles of their birthplace and only dive for about three to six minutes. They seem to take joy in their agility in the sea!
Elephant Seal & Harbor Seals
Sometimes on Protection Island harbor seals are joined by another pinniped— a northern elephant seal or two, and they have enough space to coexist harmoniously on the shore. This is the first location in Washington where northern elephant seals were observed giving birth.
Protection Island Harbor Seals
Salish Sea harbor seals are genetically distinct from those along the outer coast of Washington, and their pups are born two months later. Here are three pups in mid-July on Protection Island, two with their mothers and one awaiting her return. Betsy Carlson says, “It is important to keep your distance from a haul out site to prevent startling the animals and causing them to trample young pups as they head for safety in the water.”
Vocally Reticent Harbor Seals
One day my husband and I were kayaking near Mats Mats when a harbor seal surfaced near us, looked at us, and loudly barked at us three times. We were surprised, especially when she dived, and resurfaced to bark again! This was unusual behavior, because unlike sea lions, harbor seals are the least vocal of all pinnipeds and are generally considered “vocally reticent.”
Ft. Worden Seal
I recently spent a chilly afternoon at Ft. Worden watching over this weaned juvenile harbor seal who relaxed in the winter sunshine while I herded people around it. As one of 35 active volunteers for the PTMSC Regional Stranded Marine Mammal Network, I receive calls, mostly in summer, to help protect stranded seals, sea lions, and, a few years ago, a molting elephant seal. I grab my camera and the bag with all the equipment: an orange vest to look official; wooden stakes and yellow tape to keep people and their dogs 100 yards away; reporting form; information cards to give people. The kit includes other equipment in case the animal has died, including measuring tape, rubber gloves, a grease pen, even large bags to transport a dead seal pup. The hardest part of our training is knowing it’s to be expected that half of the seal pups won’t survive. Betsy reminds us, “That is normal, and for us to rehab a weak or sickly animal that would not make it on its own naturally is not good for the health of the seal population.”
Chetzemoka Park Pup
In September I was asked to check on this much younger seal resting below Chetzemoka Park at twilight with the tide coming in. Harbor seal pups can swim at birth, and they nurse for four to six weeks on milk that is 50% fat. Seal pups are often left on shore while their mothers go to search for food, sometimes for many hours. Another volunteer checked that this pup was gone by morning, hopefully reunited with its mother. People often want to help a stranded baby, and a perhaps apocryphal story is of someone who wanted to help by transporting a stranded pup home to her bathtub. It would help a pup much more to stay 100 yards or more distant, so the mother seal can confidently return to care for her pup. If you’d like to become involved, Betsy and Hadley, the new PTMSC AmeriCorps volunteer who is a trained vet tech, will lead a training just prior to the start of the harbor seal pupping season in June.
Harbor Seal by PTMSC
What should you do if you find a stranded or injured marine mammal? Once I almost stumbled upon this harbor seal with a foaming mouth on the beach in front of PTMSC. I immediately called the standing hotline, 385-5582 X103. An AmeriCorps volunteer joined me on the beach, and I quickly emailed her photos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Betsy Carlson contacted a vet, who determined it could have a few causes, but it was probably not life-threatening. Betsy told me, “We receive about 140 calls to the hotline per year, sometimes multiple calls for the same animal and sometimes for animals that are not marine mammals, like river otters or sea gulls.” She said, “A couple of years ago SR3 opened a rehabilitation facility in Des Moines, WA and since then the few animals we have responded to who qualify for rehab have gone to SR3.”
Share the Shore
Here’s a graphic showing how we can all “share the shore” with this delightful marine mammal.
Wonderful piece Wendy! We love these beautiful sea dogs!
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, everyone!
Thank you for taking me there and for sharing those precious moments
Thanks, Wendy. I love your gorgeous photography and your breath of knowledge about the natural world and its creatures. I always feel happier after reading one of your pieces!
Very informative. Thank you.
A great articial! As a diver I have seen a few of these seals under water. Once a pup came up and bit my swim fin! thanks so much.
a nicely written, educational and thoughtful essay. Thank you.