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Wildlife Guide: Harp Seal Facts

5 min read

Named for the black harp-shaped band across its back, the harp seal is also known as the saddleback seal or Greenland seal and they are native to the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans where they spend most of their lives in the icy waters. In fact, their scientific name means "ice-lover from Greenland" and harp seal fossils show they were alive 20 million years ago.

Harp Seal

Harp seals are earless seals, which makes them true seals, and they are truly sea enthusiasts. Harp seals spend most of their lives at sea, coming to land only during mating season for the purposes of breeding. In fact, mating actually also takes place in the sea.

Keep reading to learn more about these interesting, and adorable, animals to find out where you can find them, what they eat, and their unique adaptations.

Regional Habitat: Arctic

Name: Harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

Length: 5.7 - 6.7 ft (1.7-2m)

Weight: 254-309 pounds (120-150kg)

Conservation status: Least concern

Diet: Mostly fish and some crustaceans

Appearance: Throughout their lifetime, harp seals can look very different at different stages of their lives. When harp seal pups are born they have a fluffy white coat. As they grow, they develop a silver-gray coat with black spots. It's not until adulthood that harp seals get the distinguishable black patch on their backs that look like a harp (or wishbone) for which they are named. Harp seals have a slender snout on their small, flat heads and with their short flippers they move like a caterpillar on land.

Where to see harp seals: Harp seals are one of the many types of Arctic seals you can encounter on a cruise.

Book your next adventure on expeditions like the Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic, the Best of Western Arctic: Canada and Greenland, the Northwest Passage: Epic High Arctic, or the Arctic Express Canada: The Heart of the Northwest Passage.

Harp seal predators

Typically, harp seals live roughly 25-35 years in the wild.

Predators of the harp seals include orcas, the elusive Greenland sharks and polar bears.

Entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and human hunting practices also leave harp seals vulnerable.

What do harp seals eat?

Harp seals are incredible swimmers that can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes diving to depths of up to 885 feet (270m). Thanks to their amazing swimming skills, they are able to catch many different meals of fish and crustaceans.

Harp Seal

Able to catch so many different meals, harp seals are not picky eaters and they eat many (some estimates suggest up to 130 different species) of invertebrates and fish. Upon study, some seals have had more than 70 species of fish and 65 species of invertebrates in their stomachs at once. The most common food for harp seals are small fish such as polar cod, halibut, Arctic cod, and capelin.

When food resources are limited, harp seals rely on their thick layer of blubber for nutrition.

How fast can harp seals swim?

While compared to other true seals, harp seals only dive to moderate depths.

Harp Seal

Harp seals are very agile swimmers which helps them during hunting as they can effectively catch many types of prey. They are high-speed swimmers using their feet to propel them.

Harp seal mating

In the winter, harp seals migrate south to breeding grounds where they gather in groups of thousands when breeding season begins. Male harp seals court female harp seals and attract mates on land, but mating happens in the water.

Harp Seals

Male harp seals are known to fight other male seals by beating them with their flippers or biting them. Dominant males tend to mate with more than one female, and pregnancy lasts roughly 11 months. Harp seal pups are born typically in February when the pack ice provides space for mother harp seals to nurse their pups.

When pups are born they have distinct white fur, and newborn harp seals weigh roughly 24 pounds (11kg) and are usually 31 inches (80cm) long.

For the first ten days, harp seal mothers care for their young seals during the nursing period and during this time mother harp seals don't usually eat at all themselves. Thanks to the harp seal mother's high fat milk, the pups grow quickly and with their unique scents, the mother harp seal is able to identify her own young from the thousands of other pups in the colony.

After 10 days, the mother harp seal leaves her young to migrate to the mating grounds and start mating season.

When the mother seal leaves, the pups stay on the ice and lose up to half their body weight. After seven or eight weeks, the pups learn to hunt and swim and become independent.

Interestingly, harp seal pups go through 6 distinct stages in their young lifetime:

1. "Yellow-jacket"

During this time, the young harp seals coats are stained yellow from placental fluids after birth.

2. "White coat"

This is during the nursing stage, when seal pups lose their yellow tinge and gain white fur.

3. "Ragged jacket"

During this stage, young harp seals molt and lose their white fur to gain their adult silver-gray skin.

4. "Beater"

Once the pups are completely silver-grey, they make their way to the water and start beating their front flippers at the water as they begin to learn to swim.

5. "Bedlamer"

During this stage, the young harp seals are in the sea.

6. Adult

Female harp seals reach maturity at about five years of age, whereas male harp seals reach maturity at seven years old.

Harp seal adaptations

Harp seal pups are born without a warm protective fat layer. The long, wooly white fur they are born with helps them stay warm by trapping heat from the sunlight.

Harp Seal

To help them stay warm, adult harp seals shed, or molt, their fur and lose the top layers of their skin to grow a new coat every spring.

While harp seals front flippers are short, they have strong, thick claws while their back flippers have smaller, more narrow claws.

While harp seals breed in large groups, it's also common for them to migrate and feed in large groups as well and their annual migrations can be over 3,100 miles (4,989km) roundtrip!

Are harp seals endangered?

Based on estimates from scientists and researchers in 2015, harp seal populations include roughly 4.5 million adult harp seals worldwide.

Harp Seal

With these high numbers, their conservation status is of least concern. Yet, like all marine mammals, harp seals are protected with the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect and conserve their populations.

Where do harp seals live?

Harp seals live most of their lives in the sea, coming to land only during mating season and when mothers stay on land with their young during the nursing period.

Harp Seals

There are three distinct populations of harp seals living on the East Coast of Greenland, the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and in the Barents Sea. These populations are recognizable based on their genetic, behavioral and geographic distribution differences.

Book your Arctic polar adventure today for your chance to see the incredible harp seal in the wild.

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