Cure for Cabin Fever

Harbor Seals
harbor seal
Resting on thebeach

The winter sea is such an alien environment to humans, where the frigidwater can kill in mere moments; the idea of life akin to ours, thrivingin the bitter gales and whitecaps, seems unreal. But whenthe round head of a seal breaks the sullen gray water and turns shoreward,and you find yourself staring into its liquid eyes, there is a jolt ofrecognition — warm-blooded mammal to mammal — that for an instant transcendsthe differences. Then the seal sinks, the link breaks, and you are againa land-bound creature.

Blubber-Blanketed Torpedos

Of course, the winter ocean is a presumably comforting home to the seal,which is well fitted to this harsh environment. The harbor seal — themost common species by far on the Northeast coast — is built like a torpedo,with powerful hind flippers that propel it through the water at remarkablespeeds, and down to depths as great as 200 fathoms. The cold water wouldbe as dangerous to a seal as to a human were it not for the seal's blubberlayer, which provides insulation, a fat reserve, and buoyancy all in onethick blanket.

Harbor seals are true, or earless, seals, differing from fur seals andsea lions in their lack of external ear pinnea ("ear lobes") and havingflippers that cannot be turned forward when on land; as a result, a trueseal must inch forward on its belly like a giant caterpillar wheneverit hauls out of the water, as it does regularly to rest.

Seal Socialization

In summer, harbor seals can be found from New Hampshire and southern Mainenorth to the edge of the Arctic ice, and they are a common sight amongthe lobster buoys of the New England coast. In winter they retreat south,however, as far as Long Island (and occasionally much farther than that,to the Carolinas and Florida). Even in summer they are somewhat social,gathering in small groups on offshore ledges exposed by the falling tide,but in winter they may congregate in much greater numbers. One of thelargest gatherings of harbor seals in the United States occurs late eachwinter along North and South Monomoy Island, south of Cape Cod's elbow— up to three thousand seals, loafing and feeding as they wait for spring.

Distinguishing Characteristics

Harbor seals are rather small, with males less than 6 feet long and femalesless than 5 feet; the average weight is less than 200 pounds. Dull andblotched as a sea boulder crusted with lichen, the harbor seal's coat(if seen in good light) is an attractive wash of grayish brown, markedwith an intricate pattern of spots and mottlings. Individuals vary widely,however, from dark brown to bleached blonde.

Harbor Seal vs. Homo Sapien

Fish make up most of a harbor seal's diet, and that has long brought theminto conflict with people. They have been heavily persecuted on the Northeastcoast, mostly by fishermen who accuse them of cutting into their catch;bounties were paid in some states until the 1960s, and led to the seals'extermination in many areas. Federal protection has brought an increasein seal numbers, and although they no longer breed in much of their southernrange, there is hope that they may recolonize those areas as well. A growingproblem is human harassment — much of it unintentional — from recreationalboaters such as sea kayakers. This harassment forces breeding seals intomarginal calving sites where they are more exposed to storms and predatorssuch as sharks.

A Horsehead Seal of a Different Color

Although almost all of the seals along the winter coast are harbor seals,there is also a chance of spotting one of the much larger and rarer grayseals, or"horseheads." As the nickname suggests, the shape of the headis the main distinguishing characteristic. Harbor seals have rounded headswith short, doglike muzzles, while gray seals (which may be twice thelength and four times the bulk of a harbor seal) have long, drooping muzzles,a sort of Roman nose effect that is very distinctive. Gray seals breedin February in the Canadian Maritimes, and few wanderers will be foundsouth of the breeding colonies at this time of year — although the possibilityis always tantalizing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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