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Harbour seal (Phoca vitulina)

Chan­ces to see Har­bour seals lying on rocks are bet­ter during low water, sin­ce they tend to search for food during high tide. The size of the local popu­la­ti­on is esti­ma­ted to be around 1,000 ani­mals.

Harbour seal on Spitsbergen

Loo­ks like this guy enjoys the sun

Descrip­ti­on: With a length of about 1.5 metres and a weight of a good 100 kg, Har­bour seals are slight­ly lar­ger than Rin­ged seals. The colou­ra­ti­on of their fur varies from almost black to dark grey and brown, with pat­terns that can be simi­lar to tho­se of Rin­ged seals. Alrea­dy at birth, their size approa­ches one met­re and the fur also resem­bles that of adults. Main fea­tures to dis­tin­guish Har­bour seals from Rin­ged seals are the loca­ti­on and situa­ti­on of the obser­va­ti­on: You will find Har­bour seals, if at all, only on the west coast of Spits­ber­gen and you will rare­ly see one only, as they tend to stay in groups. Also, if you see any seals lying on rocks, then they should be Har­bour seals, as other seals in Spits­ber­gen rare­ly show this beha­viour. In con­trast to other seals, Har­bour seals usual­ly do not rest on ice floes unless the shore is not acces­si­ble.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­on: Gene­ral­ly, Har­bour seals are amongst the seal spe­ci­es with the widest ran­ge, but they are more at home in tem­pe­ra­te and sub-arc­tic are­as. In cen­tral Euro­pe, they are well-known from the North Sea coast. The world’s nort­hern­most occur­rence is the one and only colo­ny at Spits­ber­gen, which is on the nor­the­ast coast of Prins Karls For­land. They spend the who­le year in the area, but can swim qui­te far. Thus, you may also see them in Isfjord, Kongsfjord or at the nor­thwes­tern cor­ner of Spits­ber­gen, near the shores of Ams­ter­damøya and Dans­køya. The Spits­ber­gen popu­la­ti­on is pos­si­b­ly a relict dating back to a peri­od with mil­der cli­ma­te several thousand years ago.

Har­bour seals like to rest on rocks clo­se to the shore

Harbour seals

Bio­lo­gy: In Spits­ber­gen, Har­bour seal pups are born in ear­ly to mid June. The off­spring sees the light of day for the first time in shal­low water and is immedia­te­ly able to swim. The young seal will live for three to four weeks on its mother’s milk, until it has incre­a­sed its body weight from ten or twel­ve to 25-30 kg and then starts to find its own food. As soon as the young beco­me inde­pen­dent, the mating sea­son begins, but pregnan­cy is delay­ed by a good two mon­ths, until Sep­tem­ber or Octo­ber. Har­bour seals moult in late August to ear­ly Sep­tem­ber and will then build up a thick fat lay­er for the win­ter, fee­ding on almost anything they find in the water that is small enough for them to eat, such as fish, jel­ly­fi­sh and crustace­ans. Fema­les and males tend to go their sepa­ra­te ways out­side the mating and moul­ting sea­sons.

Their main enemies are Orcas, Green­land sharks and, excep­tio­nal­ly, tho­se Wal­rus who have abnor­mal diet requi­re­ments. Polar bears rare­ly take Har­bour seals, as their dis­tri­bu­ti­on ran­ges over­lap only mar­gi­nal­ly.

The life expec­tancy of Har­bour seals in Sval­bard is, for rea­sons not yet known, signi­fi­cant­ly shor­ter com­pa­red to their rela­ti­ves fur­ther south; the oldest one found was 22 years old (nor­mal­ly up to 35 years). Recent stu­dies have con­fir­med Green­land sharks to be important pre­d­a­tors in Spits­ber­gen, a fact that is likely to exp­lain the redu­ced life exp­t­ec­tancy. The rela­tively slow-swim­ming Green­land shark pro­bab­ly cat­ches the seal while it is slee­ping.

Mis­cel­la­ne­ous:Hun­ting, los­ses as bycatch in fishing nets and pol­lu­ti­on inclu­ding oil spills have put pres­su­re on Har­bour seal popu­la­ti­ons in many are­as. While the Spits­ber­gen popu­la­ti­on is assu­med to have a nor­mal size, it is on the Nor­we­gi­an red list and thus total­ly pro­tec­ted.

Harbour seal

Spitsbergen’s Har­bour seals don’t beco­me as old as their rela­ti­ves on the main­land.

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last modification: 2019-03-31 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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