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Harp Seal

Harp Seal

It’s an iconic inhabitant of the Arctic and a bit tricky to recognize for novices of Arctic wildlife! Harp seals change their coats throughout their lifetimes and only adult animals feature the signature black curved harp-like patch on their backs. Adolescent animals are silver gray with black spots and pups come as furry white fluff balls that will amaze any animal lover! Ready to follow these majestic creatures into the Arctic wilderness? Read on to find out why they are an all-time traveler’s favorite on our Arctic cruises.

  • Name - Harp seal or saddleback seal

  • Scientific name - Pagophilus Groenlandicus

  • Type - Marine mammal, belonging to the true seals/earless seals

  • Diet - Fish, shrimp and crustaceans

  • Lifespan - Around 25-30 years (in some cases up to 40 years)

  • Habitat - Arctic: Greenland Sea, Barents Sea, White Sea and North Atlantic Ocean

Where Do Harp Seals Live?

You can find these incredible pinnipeds in the Northern Hemisphere together with other seal species, sea lions and walruses. Harp seals are iconic marine mammals of the Arctic, inhabiting the frigid pack ice-dense areas of the Greenland Sea, Barents Sea, White Sea and Northwest Atlantic Ocean. In these areas, you will find three populations that differ genetically and even show distinctive behavior. A great way to see them in their natural habitat is during an expedition cruise to the Arctic (such as our East Greenland cruises).

How Do Harp Seals Hunt?

They are ice lovers and skilled swimmers! Harp seals spend up to 15 minutes underwater hunting for crustaceans and fish. Their sleek appearance lets them move at speeds of up to 20km/h (12mph) and their thick layer of blubber keeps them insulated from the cold. Their large eyes are excellent for locating their prey. And did you know that their whiskers sense the slightest vibrations underwater? If a delicious snack travels through the ocean near a harp seal, it will pick up its movement and rush to catch it!

Where Do Harp Seals Live?

What Do Harp Seals Eat?

They aren’t picky eaters and happily feed on a diversity of species available in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The diet harp seals follow includes shrimp, prawns, crustaceans and various species of fish, such as polar cod, Arctic cod, herring and redfish. An adult harp seal can stay underwater as long as 15 minutes and can dive to depths of up to 270m (885 feet), giving it ample time to feed. There’s no need to surface for small fish: harps swallow them entirely underwater. Only larger catches are brought to the surface for consumption. And the catch of the day comes in large amounts: the average male consumes about 7.4kg (16 lbs.), while females can devour as much as 9kg (20 lbs.)!

Harp Seal Mating

Let’s go south for mating!

While these seals spend summers in the far north, come winter, it’s time to travel south for the breeding season on the pack ice. Around February and March, large groups of hundreds and thousands gather around the breeding grounds. Male harp seals fight each other for mating rights, throwing punches with their flippers and biting their competitors. While the courting of females happens on the pack ice, harps stay underwater for the actual mating process. Male as well as female harp seals may mate with several partners during that time.

A cold start to life in the Arctic.

After eleven months, harp seal mothers give birth to 11kg (24 lbs.) bundles of white fur, nursing them for only about twelve days. Pups are born right on the ice. A female births one pup per year, usually during late February or mid-March. Female harps do not feed themselves during the nursing period and leave right after to mate again. From that moment young harp seals are on their own. Keeping warm with their white fur coats and drawing on the fat reserves they built up during nursing, it takes them up to eight weeks to learn how to swim and hunt.

The lives of young harp seals.

Once harp seal mothers leave, the Arctic becomes a relentless place for harp seal pups. After being abandoned, pups will shed their woolly white coat, reaching the “beater” stage by slowly developing their signature silver gray coat. The Arctic is a dangerous place for a small harp seal pup! With the summer drawing closer and sea ice slowly melting, the little ones are exposed to predators such as polar bears, known to kill harp seals. Young seals will molt several times until they get their signature coats. Only after several years, male harp seals will eventually develop their iconic silver gray coat spotted with black. Males sexually mature at around seven years of age, while females begin mating as early as age four in some cases.

What Do Harp Seals Eat?

Pups Are Perfectly Adapted to Their Cold Environment

Imagine being born on a cold, hard piece of sea ice in the chilly waters of the Arctic Ocean. Harp seal pups are born without a protective layer of fat to keep them warm, but with a furry white coat. With their long wooly and white fur, newborns stay warm by trapping heat from the sunlight. Pups molt several times during their young lives. After a nursing period of only 12 days, pups live off their fat reserves and, before being able to hunt by themselves, may lose up to 50% of their body weight.

Are Harp Seals Social?

Harps are overall solitary creatures, except during mating, molting and pupping season. Imagine large groups of animals gathering on the pack ice during mating season! That’s when they travel and hunt in large groups, being extremely vocal with over 19 identified different types of sounds. You may hear the adults growling to warn the group in case of predators and harp seal pups yelling and mumbling while playing with other pups or calling their mothers.

Are Harp Seals Social?


How Long Do Harp Seals Live?

In the wild, harp seals live around 25-30 years (and some even longer to 35-40 years).

How fast can harp seals swim?

Adult harp seals can reach speeds of around 20km/h (12mph).

How many harp seals are there in the world today?

Currently an estimated 4.5 million harp seals worldwide are living in the wild, in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

Are harp seals endangered?

As of 2024, their conservation status is of least concern and the western North Atlantic stock is not considered a strategic target under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the future, climate change and melting sea ice may get pups stranded on beaches due to a lack of sea ice. According to a National Geographic visit to a harp seal population at the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2021, pups struggled amid receding sea ice.

Do harp seals have any predators?

Adult harp seals are prey to Greenland sharks and killer whales, whereas harp seal pups are in danger of being hunted by polar bears, foxes and wolves.

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