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Behind the Scenes: Caring for Pacific Harbor Seals


Harbor seals are a common sight along the coast of California, so common in fact that they are also known as the common seal. Between February and June of each year, they arrive as patients at The Marine Mammal Center, although they cannot be seen by the general public because of their susceptibility to diseases and stress.

June 25, 2015

Watch a slideshow about harbor seals

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are one of the most widespread species of pinnipeds. They are found on both the west and east coasts of North America, from temperate to polar regions. They are also found in coastal areas of the North Pacific, from Alaska to Japan, and the North Atlantic, including Greenland, Iceland, the United Kingdom and Norway.

There are five different subspecies of harbor seals and the one found in California is known at the Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardii). Our friends on the East Coast may be familiar with the Western Atlantic harbor seal (Phoca vitulina concolor), which can be found as far south as South Carolina and northward all the way up to the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.

The worldwide population of harbor seals is estimated to be approximately 500,000 animals. Of that number, about 34,000 are Pacific harbor seals, and the population is considered to be stable or increasing slightly. Their conservation status is Least Concern, according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List of Threatened Species.

Harbor Seals at The Marine Mammal Center
Each spring during pupping season, The Marine Mammal Center rescues a number of harbor seal pups due to maternal separation. Well-meaning beachgoers may come upon a lone pup and think it has been abandoned, when its mother is actually just out in the ocean hunting for fish. Instead of following the advice to Leave Seals Be, people often disturb the animal, allow dogs to approach it, or in extreme cases, try to rescue the pup themselves.

When a harbor seal pup is reported to the Center’s stranding hotline (415-289-SEAL), volunteers from the Center arrive at the scene to assess whether the pup is sick, injured or abandoned. If it is determined that the pup needs treatment, it is transferred to the Center's main hospital in the Marin Headlands. The majority of rescued pups are very young, sometimes just a few days old. Many of them still have the umbilical cord attached.

Harbor seal pups develop a silvery gray coat while still in the uterus. Known as lanugo, this soft downy fur is shed by most pups before birth. Some pups that are born early in the breeding season or born prematurely may still have the lanugo coat when they show up as patients at the Center.

Watch a slideshow about the Center's work with harbor seals

Behind the Scenes at the Harbor Seal Hospital

The Geoffrey C. Hughes Harbor Seal Hospital is a special care area within The Marine Mammal Center. It is located away from the rest of the patients and not open to the public because the tiny little harbor seal patients are extremely sensitive to diseases, human interaction and stress in general.

Most harbor seal pups arrive at the Center at such a young age that they have not yet learned how to eat fish and fend for themselves. A corps of volunteers work tirelessly to feed them, teach them to eat fish, and keep the facility clean and hygienic. Harbor seal pups need to be fed more often than sea lions or elephant seals, so the volunteer crews at the Harbor Seal Hospital often work long hours to care for the vulnerable patients.

Harbor seal pups at the Center may need a few months of rehabilitation, a little bit of "fish school," and some time to gain sufficient weight so they can fend for themselves. Then they will be released back to the ocean, a joyous occasion that gives these animals a second chance at life.

Leave Seals Be
In the early part of each year, mother harbor seals give birth at rookeries all along the California coast—and that means we rescue more and more pups. If you see a seal pup on a beach that looks sick or injured, please resist the urge to pick it up and remember that it’s always best to leave seals be. Instead, call our 24-hour rescue hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325).

You Can Make a Difference

Help provide the critical care that harbor seal pups need
to be successfully returned to their ocean home. 



Shop our online gift store and help The Marine Mammal Center care for our harbor seal patients!

A Harbor Seal Puppet makes a great interactive friend, an adorable furry companion for ages 3 and up.

You can help the Center when you adopt Garnett the Harbor Seal, with adoption certificate and plush toy.

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