Harp Seal

Pagophilus groenlandicus

Harp seals get their name from a dark patch on their back that looks like a harp. But you might be more familiar with their adorable offspring. With their fluffy white hair and round black eyes, harp seal pups may be the cutest baby animals on the planet!

Harp seal and pup

Adult harp seals weigh about 135 kg (300 lb.) and measure between 1.6-1.8 m (5.25-6.25 ft.). They have light gray fur with a dark mask on their face. Though named for the harp-shaped patch on their backs, some female harp seals never develop the large patch and just have smaller dark spots.

Harp seals are a kind of pinniped, a group of marine mammals that includes seals, fur seals, sea lions, and walruses. Like all true seals, harp seals have ear holes but no external ear flaps. They have short flippers with claws at the ends.

On the ice, harp seals move using their bellies in a caterpillar-like motion. But they spend most of the time in the water, where they move with ease. They are excellent swimmers and use their back flippers to propel themselves forward.

Harp seals can dive as deep as 700 m (2300 ft.) and can stay underwater for 15 minutes!

Inhabiting the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, harp seals typically can be found in coastal waters near ice floes (large sheets of ice). There are three distinct populations of harp seals in the Barents Sea, the East Coast of Greenland, and the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.

All three populations have their own breeding grounds and migratory routes. But in general, harp seals migrate north in the summer and then head back south toward their breeding grounds in September.

What Harp Seals Eat

Harp seals eat many different species of fish, including polar cod, halibut, Arctic cod, and capelin. They also feed on a variety of crustaceans.

Harp Seal Reproduction

Several thousand harp seals reach their breeding grounds in January-February. A group of harp seals is called a colony or rookery.

Male harp seals battle for mates by hitting each other with their flippers and biting each other with their sharp teeth. They also perform courtship displays to attract females’ attention, which include blowing bubbles, making pawing gestures, and chasing them.

Female harp seals have a gestation period of about 11 months. They give birth on the pack ice in late February through mid-March.

Newborn pups have yellow fur and weigh about 11 kg (25 lb.). They have no fat at birth, but they rapidly gain blubber though nursing on their mothers’ high-fat milk. After two days, their fur becomes white. This light, fluffy coat helps keep them warm and camouflages the helpless pups against the white ice.

Harp seal pup

Harp seals spend the first 12 days of their life nursing and learning from their mothers. Their mothers will call to them from the water and encourage them to jump in so they can teach the pups to swim.

Mother harp seals recognize their pup by their scent. The mother and pup will bring their noses close together in a “kiss”.

After 12 days, the mothers leave the pups on their own. At that point, the pups weigh 36 kg (80 lb.). For the next four weeks, the pups wait for their white fur to completely molt, giving way to their sleek gray coats. Once this happens, they’re ready to enter the water and hunt on their own. They may lose up to half their body weight during this waiting period.

Harp seals live about 30 years in the wild. Predators include polar bears, killer whales, sharks, and walruses.

Conservation Status

The IUCN Redlist classifies harp seals as a species of least concern. Although there are 4.5 million harp seals in the wild, they do face threats. Some of these threats include commercial hunting, collisions with ships, getting tangled in nets, and pollution.

Another major threat is climate change. Harp seals rely on pack ice for birthing pups. If temperatures rise, it can cause the ice to break up early, before the pups are ready to swim for long periods of time, and they will drown.

What You Can Do to Help

You can report any harp seals that you see injured, stranded or caught in nets. Call an organization that rescues and rehabilitates marine life. Do not approach the animal yourself.

Harp Seal Range

Harp Seal Range Map

Inhabiting the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, harp seals typically can be found in coastal waters near ice floes. There are three distinct populations of harp seals in the Barents Sea, the East Coast of Greenland, and the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.

More Harp Seal Resources

Blog Posts about the Harp Seal

About the Author
Soaked!

Abi Cushman is a contributing editor of Animal Fact Guide and My House Rabbit. When she's not writing about weird animal facts, Abi writes and illustrates funny books for kids. Her picture books, Soaked! and Animals Go Vroom!, are available now from Viking Children's Books.

To learn more and to download free activity sheets, visit www.abicushman.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AbiCushman and on Instagram at @Abi.Cushman.