There are 18 species in the family of True Seals (Phocidae) currently alive throughout the world, and a total of 10 of them can be found between the Arctic and Antarctica. Out of this list, four are found in Antarctica, and they are also among the most populated seal species on earth: Weddell seals, Ross seals, leopard seals and crabeater seals.
Some people also lump the Antarctic fur seals into this category. However, it is important to note that the name Antarctic fur seal is actually a misnomer because they trace their lineage back to the eared side of the seal family. In other words, they are not in the family of True Seals but rather in the family of Eared seals (Otariidae).
It is possible to see up to seven different species on an Arctic cruise: the harp seal, hooded seal, ribbon seal, spotted seal, harbor seal, bearded seal and ringed seal. Just like their relatives in the Antarctic, the Arctic seals are lumped together under the heading of ice seals.
The main distinction that sets them apart from open water seals is the fact that their breeding occurs on ice. Because of this, ice seals have a natural source of protection from predators that open water seals cannot take advantage of. As a result, the species within the ice seals line are more common and have much higher population numbers than their open water cousins.
Taking a closer look at the Antarctic seals
1. Weddell seals – This species is typically quite docile, and it lives most of its life underneath the ice in the Antarctica region. Although these mammals need to surface for air eventually, they have been known to stay underwater for as long as 45 minutes at a time. Additionally, Weddell seals can dive 610 meters (2,000 feet) to help them in their search for food. These vocal creatures typically have one pup per year, and they can grow to be as large as 3 meters (10 feet) and 544 kg (1,200 lbs).
2. Ross seals – The Ross seal occupies remote areas of Antarctica, and it has several physical characteristics that help it stand out from other seal species. For example, Ross seals have large eye sockets, a blunt ended snout and very short fur. These seals cannot achieve an upright stance, and this makes them move very slowly on land. The females of this species are larger than the males, and both genders are known for singing frequently.
3. Leopard seals – The black spotted coat that each of these seals have inspired their name, but they also have other things in common with leopards such as a fiercely predatory nature. Penguins and krill are the leopard seals primary food source. These earless seals have large heads, and they can grow to be 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) and 380 kg (840 lbs).
4. Crabeater seals – It would be easy to assume that crabeater seals live mostly on crabs, but their most frequent dining choice is actually krill. Just like the Weddell seals, the females of this species generally give birth to only one pup per year. Crabeater seals can live for up to 40 years, and they often weigh an astounding 227 kg (500 lbs).
Getting to know the seals of the Arctic
1. Harp seal – The babies of this species are easily recognizable due to their white coats and black eyes. Harp seals spend most of their time in the water, and they can stay submerged for periods of 15 minutes at a time. Female harp seals have a communal birthing area. Humans are their main predator because they target the babies for their beautiful fur. An adult harp seal may reach 180 kg (400 lbs) and 1.9 meters (6.25 feet) during its 20-year expected lifespan. Harp seals can occur in very large groups and are often seen on our trips.
2. Hooded seal – Hooded seals can live up to 35 years in their natural habitat, and they are characterized by their silver-gray coats and black heads. These marine mammals are more aggressive than most other seal species. It is estimated that 592,100 of these seals are alive today. A fully grown adult male can weigh 300 kg (660 lbs) and measure 2.5 meters (8 feet) long.
3. Ribbon seal – This species is the only one that is known to have an internal air sack, and researchers have not yet discovered its purpose. Their distinctive ribbon pattern that showcases two different colors does not becomes fully visible until the age of four, but their method of moving forward helps distinguish them at a much earlier age. Unlike other seals that use both of their flippers at once to pull themselves forward, ribbon seals alternate their fore flippers. This gives them incredible speed for short distances that can rival a human running. The ribbon seal only lives in the north Pacific.
4. Spotted seal – The spotted seal species is easy to recognize due to its light gray to silver fur that is covered in dark spots. Adults can be as large as 1.5 meters (5 feet) and weigh up to 115 kg (250 lbs). They feed on a wide variety of small crustaceans and fish, and these seals can dive 300 meters (1,000 feet) down in pursuit of a meal. The spotted seal only lives in the North Pacific.
5. Bearded seal – The white whiskers that stand out from each bearded seal’s gray or dark brown coat are responsible for their name. These solitary animals are known for singing, and the song of a male can be heard from up to 19 km (12 miles) away. Little is known about their breeding habits, but researchers have discovered that female bearded seals have one pup per year after reaching sexual maturity at the age of five.
6. Ringed seal – This is the most prevalent seal species in the Arctic, so people who book an expedition to this area have a good chance of encountering a ringed seal. However, their solitary nature and ability to stay underwater for long periods of time can make them difficult to spot unless you are very patient. This is the smallest seal species overall, and they have light circular patterns on their dark gray backs that stand out due and inspired their name.
7. Harbor seal – This species is not generally known as a high high Arctic species but does occur as far north as the NW of Svalbard at 79°N and along much of the southern Greenland coast as well. It is a small seal of 1.7 – 1.9 meters in length and up to 150 kg (330 lbs). They are generally covered in small spots but can vary in color pattern within the brown and grey tones. They are generalist feeders and eat a varied diet of fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods.
Our cruises give participants an excellent opportunity to do some seal watching. In some areas, the more sociable species group together in large numbers, and this makes them easy to spot from the boat. However, the fact that most seals can stay submerged for at least 15 minutes means that they can easily go into hiding if any loud noises spook them.
Be aware that they will also seek out areas that are more isolated during breeding season in order to protect their pups. Overall, it is relatively common for people who take one of our voyages to see numerous seals, but make sure that you are ready to take photos quickly just in case.