When I was in graduate school at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, I studied marine mammals along 30 miles of isolated coastline at Vandenberg Air Force Base. About 300 harbor seals lived there, concentrated at three separate points of land. During my study, I developed a deep affinity for these special animals, and I looked forward with excitement to the spring, when pupping season began.
Harbor seals can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and are beautiful to look at. They average 5 to 7 feet in length and have short fur that comes in a variety of color patterns, usually a silvery gray with black spots, or a dark gray with silvery spots. Such variation in the color of the fur may help camouflage them when they rest on offshore rocks, which they do regularly. It is easy to see how these seals were the source of the mystical selkie legend of Gaelic and Faroe folklore; they really do resemble a human form swathed in a shimmery coat of seal fur.
Most harbor seal pups are born in March and April and, from the moment they are born, they are quite independent. I’ve seen pups head for the ocean less than an hour after birth. Harbor seal females are attentive mothers, guiding their pups into shallow waters and carrying them on their backs when they swim in the ocean. Mothers nurse their pups for about a month. During this time they teach them to swim and forage in nearshore waters.
A mother harbor seal may leave her pup on the beach or rocks while she goes into the ocean to find food, then return to the place where she left it. This works well on remote beaches, but it can be problematic when seals rear their pups in areas accessible to humans.
I love watching the harbor seals on the rocks off Moonstone Beach Drive. They seem to be accustomed to humans walking along the boardwalk and beach just a few yards away. This is such a wonderful attraction! The downside is that sometimes when a female returns from the sea to find her pup, the beach may be filled with people, or someone may have moved or touched her pup. In these situations, the mother and pup may not be reunited, and the pup’s chances for survival are slim.
We are fortunate to have an active group of volunteers with the Marine Mammal Center and Pacific Wildlife Care. If a lone harbor seal pup is observed on the beach, it is important to stay away from it and call the Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-7325. Usually, volunteers will watch the pup for a while to see whether the mother returns, and these reunions do happen. If the mother doesn’t return, volunteers will rescue the pup and care for it until it can feed on its own.
Harbor seal pupping season is happening now. Enjoy our seal neighbors, but keep a distance and respect their need for safety.