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HARBOR SEAL, OR LEOPARD SEAL

HARBOR SEAL, OR LEOPARD SEAL
Phoca vitulina

HARBOR SEAL, OR LEOPARD SEAL  Copyright Stan Klos

Wild animals of North America: Intimate studies of big and little creatures  
By Edward William Nelson 1918 Edited By Stanley L. Klos

 

The harbor seal, one of the smallest of the hair seals, attaining a length of only 5 or 6 feet, is one of the most widely distributed and best known of its kind. It is a circumpolar species, formerly ranging well south on the European coast and to the Carolinas on the American side of the Atlantic, though now more restricted in its southern extension. On the North Pacific it ranges south to the coast of Japan on the Asiatic side and to Lower California on the American side.

Throughout its range the harbor seal haunts the coast-line, frequenting rocky points, islets, bays, harbors, and the lower courses of rivers. It commonly frequents the sandy bars exposed at low tide about the mouths of rivers, and has been known to ascend the St. Lawrence to Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario, and the Yukon to several hundred miles above its mouth. It is still a common and well-known animal on the coast of Maine and eastern Canada and about many harbors on the Pacific coast. It appears to be a non-migratory species and in northern waters frequents the pack ice along shore in winter. Where the pack is unbroken, the seal makes breathing holes through the ice, which it visits at intervals, and where it is hunted by the Eskimos.

It is not polygamous and is not so strongly gregarious as some of the other seals. That it has some social instinct is evident, however, since it commonly gathers in small herds on the same sand spits, rocky points, and islets. The young are born in early spring and at first are entirely covered with a woolly white coat. The mother is devoted to the "pup" and shows the deepest anxiety if danger threatens.

The flesh and blubber of this seal are highly prized by the Eskimos as the most palatable of

all the seals, and the skin is valued for clothing and for making strong rawhide lines used for nets and other purposes. On the Alaskan coast of Bering Sea in fall the Eskimos capture many seals in nets set off rocky points, just as gill nets are set in the same places in spring for salmon.

 

Owing to the presence of this seal along so many inhabited coasts, much has been written concerning its habits, especially as observed about the shores of the British Isles. Where not disturbed it shows little fear and will swim about boats or ships, raising its head high out of water and gazing steadily with large intelligent eyes at the object of its curiosity; but when hunted it becomes exceedingly shy and wary. All who have held the harbor seal in captivity agree in prating its intelligence. It becomes very docile, often learning a variety of amusing tricks, and develops great affection for its keeper.

The small size of this seal'iand its limited numbers are elements which save it from extens^ commercial hunting and may preserve it far into the future to add life and interest to many a rocky coast.  The black head, gray body, and large dorsal ring of the male harp seal are strongly distinctive markings in a group generally characterized by plain dull colors. The harp seal is a large species, the old males weighing from 6oo to 8oo pounds.

It is nearly circumpolar in distribution, but its area of greatest abundance extends from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Greenland, and thence eastward in that part of the Arctic Ocean lying north of Europe and western Siberia. Its reported presence in the Arctic basin north of Bering Straits or along the coasts to the southward is yet to be confirmed. It is an offshore species, migrating southward with the ice pack in fall to the coast of Newfoundland and returning northward with the pack after the breeding season in spring. For a day or two during the fall migration, when these seals are passing certain points on the coast of Labrador, the sea is said to be thickly dotted with their heads as far as the eye can reach, all moving steadily southward.

The harp seal is extremely gregarious and gathers on the pack ice well offshore during March and April to breed. The main breeding grounds are off Newfoundland and off Jan Mayen Land in the Arctic. During the breeding season, in the days of their abundance, they gathered in enormous closely packed herds, sometimes containing several hundred thousand animals and covering the ice for miles.

From all accounts it is evident that originally there were millions of these animals in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Their gregarious habits made them an easy prey, and the value of their skins and blubber formed

the basis for a great industry. Hundreds of vessels were sent out from north European and American ports and nearly 1,ooo,ooo harp seals were killed during each breeding season. This tremendous slaughter and its attendant waste has resulted in the disappearance of these seals from many of their former haunts and has alarmingly reduced their numbers everywhere. Some are still killed off the coast of Newfoundland, but the sealing industry, now insignificant as compared with its former estate, is practically dead.

The hunting of harp and other seals on the pack ice is an occupation calling for such splendid qualities of virile hardihood in the face of constant danger to life that its brutality has been little considered. In this perilous work great numbers of hunters have been cast away and frozen miserably on the drifting ice and many a sealing ship has been lost with all hands.

Off Newfoundland the young harp seal is born early in March, wearing a woolly white coat. At first it is tenderly cared for by its mother, but before the end of April it has learned to swim and is left to care for itself. The young do not enter the water until they are nearly two weeks old and require several days of practice before they learn to swim well. The adults are notable for their swiftness in the water. In the tremendous herds of these seals the continual cries uttered by old and young is said to produce a steady roar which may be heard for several miles. Their food is mainly fish. Man is their worst enemy, but they are also preyed upon by sharks and killer whales.


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