Harbor Seals: How and Where to Spot Them

Harbor seal on a rock in Monterey Bay. Photo: Dr. Steve Lonhart, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, www.sanctuarysimon.org.
Harbor seal on a rock in Monterey Bay. Photo: By Dr. Steve Lonhart, courtesy of NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary www.sanctuarysimon.org

The waters of California’s Monterey Bay, particularly around the Santa Cruz Wharf, are home to the cute and quite fuzzy harbor seal (Phoca vitulina). The smaller of the wharf’s regular seal visitors, harbor seals can be identified by their ear holes (no flaps) and tiny front flippers that only allow a hauled-out seal to lie flat, like a big sausage. To see them, look toward the waters for what resembles a rounded football floating but then sinks beneath the surface and disappears. This is the typical foraging behavior of the harbor seal as it prowls the bottom for its food and surfaces for a short time to breath and look around.

Harbor seals. These are hanging out on the rocks on the beach at Wilder Ranch
Harbor seals. These are hanging out on the rocks on the beach at Wilder Ranch, in Santa Cruz, California.

Harbor seals favor coastal waters near shore and are often seen on rocky islands, sandy beaches, mudflats, bays, and estuaries. They normally haul out on sandy beaches and low rock ledges. They don’t climb well and are leery of humans, so you’re likely to see them only in the water and kelp around the wharf. Some of the best places to spot a harbor seal out of the water are at isolated beaches, such as the cliffs at Wilder Ranch, north of Santa Cruz off Highway 1.

This fellow chose what looks like a pretty uncomfortable resting area. Photo: Crystal Birns Photography.
This fellow chose what looks like a pretty uncomfortable resting area. Photo: Crystal Birns Photography

Population and Characteristics

Worldwide, harbor seals are found north of the equator in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The total population is estimated to be about 500,000. In the United States, they range from Alaska to Baja California, with a population of about 35,000 along the California coast. They eat mostly small fish, squid, and octopus but are known to be opportunistic feeders, so they eat just about anything they can find in the kelp and on the ocean floor.

Harbor seals resting in a kelp canopy inside Point Lobos State Marine Reserve, near Carmel, California. Photo: Chad King, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, www.sanctuarysimon.org.
Harbor seals resting in a kelp canopy inside Point Lobos State Marine Reserve, near Carmel, California. Photo: Chad King, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, www.sanctuarysimon.org

The color of harbor seals can range from silver with black spots, to black with gray or white rings, to almost pure white. Males can be up to 6.5 feet long, while females are usually just under 5.5 feet. Female seals give birth about once a year, with pups born in the early spring, a 300-pound mom gives birth to a pup that weighs less than 25 pounds and is able to swim as soon as it is born. Females don’t make sounds. It’s the pup’s bleating call, that sounds like a child saying “maaa,” that bonds the mother to her pup.

A harbor seal with what looks like a shark bite (dark crescent in center of belly) that has healed. Photo: Dr. Steve Lonhart, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, www.sanctuarysimon.org.
A harbor seal with what looks like a shark bite (dark crescent in center of belly) that has healed. Photo: Dr. Steve Lonhart, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, www.sanctuarysimon.org

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Marine Life Guide. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
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About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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