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A Guide to the Seals of Maine

A Paddler’s Guide to the Seals of Maine

A closer look at the most commonly spotted marine mammal on the Maine coast

If you’ve been on the ocean in Maine, whether by paddle, oars, motor, or sail, you’ve probably spotted at least one seal. But did you know that Maine is home to four different kinds of seals? Some of these blubbery little friends live in our local waters year round, while others are only seasonal visitors. If you’re interested in learning more about Maine’s most beloved marine mammals, read on!

What Makes a Seal a Seal

First up, let’s learn a little more about seals in general. Seals are members of the family Pinniped, which also includes Walruses and Sea Lions. All of Maine’s seals are members of the True Seal family (Phocidea in latin). True seals are also called earless seals, because of their smooth round heads, or crawling seals, because of the way they scoot themselves flat across the land. This differentiates them from the eared or walking seals (Sea Lions and Fur Seals of the scientific family Otariidae) who possess visible ear flaps and waddle with their fronts held upright when on land. When in the water, true seals propel themselves using their hind flippers, while the front flippers are used for steering and stability. The opposite is true of eared seals.

Harbor Seal Skeleton

The skeleton of a Harbor Seal

Like other marine mammals, seals breathe air, but spend most of their time in the water. Unlike dolphins, whales, or manatees however, seals are able to come up on land. In fact, they do so regularly to rest, sunbathe, and avoid predators. A colony of seals perched on one of Maine’s numerous rocky ledges is the most common way summer boaters get to see these adorable creatures. Seals eat a wide variety of fish, crustaceans, and shellfish as their primary foods, but have also been known to eat seabirds and other marine mammals on rare occasions. They are members of the order carnivora just like cats and dogs, and people are often surprised by how closely their skeletons resemble these distant cousins, since much of their limb bones are hidden inside their blubbery bodies. Their closest relatives within carnivora are the mustelids (aka weasel family) such as otters, minks, ferrets, and skunks. 

Harbor seal juvenile close up - note dog like face

Juvenile Harbor Seal aka a “Sea Dog”!

Harbor Seals

The most common seal in Maine, and in fact the world, is the Harbor Seal. Harbor seals are identified by their small round heads, large eyes, and short snouts. They are often referred to as “sea dogs” or “sea pups” because of their similarity in appearance to a Lab or Retriever, and their curious attitude. This adorable nickname is where the name of Portland’s Minor League Baseball team, and their mascot Slugger, comes from! Harbor Seals pup in spring or early summer, then spend the rest of the summer gathered in colonies as the babies grow and put on layers of blubber. In the winter they separate and will live either solitarily or in small family groups. When not basking on rocks, Harbor Seals are most likely to be seen popping up a few boat lengths behind or beside a paddler, in order to check out those strange looking crafts. Harbor Seals mainly eat fish, crustaceans, and shellfish. Harbor Seals are a mix of brown and gray, with speckling of different colors and shades, which gives them a thoroughly mottled appearance. When wet their coloring tends to blend into a single color, as opposed to observations made while they are resting on shore. Adults tend to be around 5 or 6 feet long and weigh anywhere from 150 to 400 lbs. 

Gray Seal close up - note the horse face

Close up of a Grey Seal

Gray Seals

The larger of our two year round pinnipeds, Gray Seals can be 7-8 feet long and weigh up to 800 lbs! Gray Seals pup earlier than Harbor Seals in January and February. Pups are born with a soft layer of white fur, which they shed after about a month. The winter pupping season means Gray Seal babies are far more mature by the time most boaters are on the water and able to see them than for Harbor Seals. Gray Seals are distinguished from Harbor Seals most easily by their size, and by their longer snouts, which give them a more horse or cow like appearance. Gray Seals are the longest divers of Maine’s seals, able to stay underwater for up to a hour! 

For information about recent Gray Seal pup rescues in Cape Elizabeth, check out MMoME’s facebook page!

Gray Seal seasonal travels

Radio tagging data shows the travels of three different Gray Seals from their place of birth – Map by Kimberly Murray, from NOAA research permit #21719

 

Harp Seals

Harp Seal adult - note black back

Harp Seal adult

The first of Maine’s two “ice seal” species, Harp seals are distinguished by the dark harp shaped marking on the adults’ backs, and by the mask-like patch of dark fur on their face. “Teen age” pups are referred to as beaters and are cream with brown spotting. Ice seals are so called because they spend their summer in arctic waters, then move south as pack ice forms, where they will give birth on ice flows in late winter or early spring. They migrate regularly over thousands of miles, and thus can be found as far south as Maritime Canada and the Gulf of Maine during the winter.

Harp seal juvenile - "beater" phase

Harp Seal juvenile or “beater” – named for the sound their tails make on the surface of the water

The Harp Seals seen in Maine are typically members of the western Atlantic group, who’s breeding grounds are found off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and around Magdalen Island in the center of the  Gulf of St Lawrence. One of the things which makes Harp Seals unusual is their weaning process. Pups nurse with their mother for only up to twelve days, at which point they are abruptly abandoned entirely. Pups will stay on the pack ice for four to six weeks, during which time they eat nothing at all, until eventually entering the water and feeding for themselves. After weaning her pup, females join males at the breeding colony, where they will mate before migrating north to summer feeding grounds.

 

 

Hooded Seals

Perhaps the strangest looking of Maine’s four pinnipeds, Hooded Seals are named for the large air sacks on the male’s heads. Even without the sacks inflated, Hooded Seals are very distinct, with mottled white-light gray and black-dark gray fur, and a very wide nose reminiscent of an ape or short faced dog. Juveniles have a distinct light belly and a silvery blue back. These seals are much more territorial and aggressively solitary than other seals. Hooded seals are of a similar size to the Gray Seals, ranging from 7 to 9 feet long and weighing up to 900 lbs.

Male, female, and baby Hooded Seals

Hooded Seals

Hooded Seals are known to be deep diving feeders, with dives typically lasting 20 minutes and to a depth of 1900 feet. However, dives have been recorded as deep as over 3000 feet and lasting up to an hour. Hooded Seals give birth and mate on pack ice in March and April, later and further north than the Fur Seal. Hooded seals also have the shortest weaning period of any mammal, lasting only 3-5 days! They are the least likely of Maine’s four seals to spot in our waters, and the least likely for marine mammal rescue organizations to interact with. 

Tips & Guidelines for Seal-Watching

Seals are most often seen as they pop up to investigate boaters, or while resting on shore. When paddling keep your head on a swivel, looking to the sides and behind you for curious seals following. Also keep your ears open. Seals will often make a distinct huffing sound as they blow salt water from their nostrils. At a distance seal heads often look like dark colored buoys or resting sea birds, but with practice you’ll soon be able to spot the differences. When looking for seals on the land, keep your eyes out for movement, or odd discolorations in the rock. Seals, especially the common Harbor Seals, have a wide range of possible gray, black, brown, tan, and white colorations. They will also often rest in “banana shape” with their head and tail lifted up off of the rock. 

Seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it is very important that we as boaters not disturb them. Never disrupt seals resting on rocks or beaches. If a seal pops up near you while paddling, stop and watch it or paddle away calmly, never paddle directly at a seal. It is highly unlikely that a seal will cause you or your boat any harm, but for both your’s and the seal’s safety (and because it is illegal to do so), you should never try to touch a seal with your hand or paddle, or try to feed it or otherwise coax it closer.

seal head at surface of the water in the distance

A harbor seal swimming in the distance

The MMPA requires people to stay at least 50 yards (150 feet) away from seal colonies and beached seals. That’s half a football field, or 10 boat lengths. If the seals are reacting to your presence, you are already too close. Moving away, waving flippers, yawning, staring, vocalizing, and eating/chewing rocks and sand are all possible signs of disturbance. You should also never touch a seal pup even if it looks abandoned. It is just relaxing in a safe spot while mom fishes nearby. Rest out of the water is important for seals, as it keeps them safe from predators, allows them to build up their blubber reserves out of the cold water, and sunbathing helps to kill potentially harmful bacteria. Additionally, seals, even pups, can bite!

What to Do if You Spot a Seal That May Be In Trouble

If a seal appears to be injured or is being disturbed by others, please call the Maine Marine Mammal hotline at 1-800-532-9551. While waiting for the response team, do not approach, touch, pour water on, or in any other way disturb the seal. Your assistance in educating other beach goers and paddlers to keep their distance is greatly appreciated! In neighboring New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts, the Seacoast Science Center Marine Mammal hotline may be called at 603-997-9448; in Maritime Canada contact the Marine Animal Response Society at 1 866 567 6277. You may also contact the non profit Marine Mammals of Maine, or the College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale Marine Mammal Strandings program, for additional information about marine mammal strandings and rescues. 

 

Photo of a seal resting on rocks in Portland Maine, taken by a kayaker using a telephoto lense

A harbor seal resting on the rocks near Portland harbor and Fort Gorges

Seeing Seals with Portland Paddle

Our daily, two hour long, sunset tours are one of the best ways to see seals in southern Maine in June-August! Sea Kayaks were originally invented by arctic peoples such as the Greenland Inuit for seal hunting, and these quiet, sea worthy crafts give you an up close, seals eye view of the world.

For those looking for a longer expedition, our half day and full day kayak tours  give paddlers the chance to explore further out of Portland harbor, while our multi-day trips provide an amazing opportunity to see seals, as well as other marine mammals such as whales, porpoises, and dolphins in more remote ocean settings!

 

 

Sources

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinniped
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harbor_seal
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eared_seal
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earless_seal
  5. https://birdwatchinghq.com/seals-in-maine/
  6. https://www.maine.gov/dmr/science/species-information/protected-species-in-the-gulf-of-maine/seals
  7. https://www.seacoastsciencecenter.org/marine-mammal-rescue/meet-the-species/
  8. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/marine-mammal-protection/seal-ecology-and-assessment-research-northwest
  9. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/harp-seal
  10. https://www.pinnipeds.org/seal-information/species-information-pages/the-phocid-seals/harp-seal
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hooded_seal
  12. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/hooded-seal
  13. https://www.pinnipeds.org/seal-information/species-information-pages/the-phocid-seals/hooded-seal
  14. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/marine-life-viewing-guidelines
  15. https://www.seacoastsciencecenter.org/2021/01/22/where-have-all-the-ice-seals-gone/
  16. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/marine-life-viewing-guidelines/share-shore-seals-new-england-mid-atlantic
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