Harp Seal

These "saddlebacks" are historically known as true ice enthusiasts, visiting the land mainly for breeding and spending the bulk of their lives at sea

Harp Seal

Region: Arctic

Destinations: Greenland, Svalbard

Name: Harp Seal a.k.a. Saddleback Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

Length: 2 metres

Weight: 140 to 190 kg

Location: Atlantic side of the Arctic

Conservation status: Least Concern

Diet: Fish and crustaceans

Appearance: Silver-gray

How do Harp Seals hunt?

Harp Seals are extremely agile swimmers, able to catch a wide variety of fish and crustaceans. They can stay underwater for 15 minutes. Their thick coats of blubber not only keep them warm but also serve as a source of nutrition when food resources are thin. They have proportionally large eyes, giving it excellent vision. Underwater, its nostril slits close so it can’t smell anything, but this is made up for by the use of its vibrissae (whiskers) which are sensitive to touch and possibly to vibrations caused by the movement of prey. They are able to dive as deep as 270 metres.

Are Harp Seals social?

Harp Seals are very social come mating season, forming huge colonies on land. They also often travel and hunt in large pods spaning from dozens to hundreds. They have a wide variety of calls, some for warning other seals off, others used to attract a mate.

What are Harp Seal mating rituals like?

Harp Seals migrate south when the winter months start rolling in. While males court females on land, the actual mating occurs in the water. Males fight for mating rights by biting and beating each other with their flippers. Dominant males will mate with several different females. The pregnancy lasts about 11 months, the pups being born around February. The pups, born with white fur, are about 11 kg in weight and around 80 centimetres in length. The nursing period only lasts about 10 days during which the mother does not feed herself and the pup grows quickly, fattening up to nearly 40 kg. The mother then abruptly leaves to commence mating, leaving the pup behind. The pup will become sedentary to conserve its stores of fat. They can lose up to half of their body weight during this period of 7 or 8 weeks, until they have learned to properly swim and hunt for themselves.   

Harp Seal pups go through 6 distinct stages:

  1. “Yellow-jacket” – The pups’ white coats are stained yellow by placental fluids when they are born.
  2. “White-coat” – The nursing stage. The offspring’s coats lose their yellowish tinge, becoming completely white.
  3. “Ragged-jacket” – The pups start to moult, losing their white fur, revealing their adult silver-grey skin underneath.
  4. “Beater” – Now completely silver-grey, the pups start “beating” at water with their front flippers in an effort to learn how to swim.
  5. “Bedlamer” – The young seals are now in the sea.
  6. Adult – Males reach their maturity at about 7 years of age; females at about 5.

How long do Harp Seals live?

Harp Seals live about 20 years in the wild.

How many Harp Seals are there today?

There were an estimated 5,500,000 Harp Seals in the world as of 2004.

Do Harp Seals have any predators?

Harp Seals are prey for Killer Whales, Sharks and Polar Bears. Before they learn to swim the pups are very vulnerable to Polar Bears. 

7 Super Harp Seal Facts

  • Harp Seals are sometimes called “Saddlebacks” due to the saddle-shaped markings on their backs.
  • Mother Harp Seals can identify their own young in the thousands of a colony by their scent.
  • Seals that wander away from the herd are referred to as “vagrants.”
  • After being weaned, a Harp Seal pup’s teeth will not grow if it does not feed.
  • Harp Seals only spend significant amounts of time on land during the mating and birthing season. The rest of their lives are spent in the water.
  • The Harp Seals’ annual migration to and from the mating grounds can add up to 8000 km.
  • Pagophilus groenlandicus” means “ice-lover from Greenland.”

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