Kayakers out on Bellingham Bay and Drayton Harbor often see the sleek round heads of harbor seals poking through the water to check out the scenery above.
From July to August, beach walkers also may see seal pups hanging out alone on shorelines. Leave them be and stay at least 100 yards away. Their mothers are likely out searching for food and are more likely to abandon their babies if they come into close contact with people. Plus, disturbing them is a violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act as a Whatcom County resident discovered last week after trying to rescue a seal pup he thought had been abandoned on the beach.
Mother harbor seals nurse their pups for four to six weeks with milk that’s nearly 50 percent fat, so the babies pack on the pounds. After that, they’re weaned and sent out on their own. By then their weight may have tripled. That’s good because the pups use their stored reserves of fat while learning to feed themselves.
A female harbor seal will give birth to one pup, in the spring. She’ll haul out of the water during low tide to give birth on sandbars, beaches or reefs. The babies can swim within an hour of being born. A pup’s first year is tough, as 50 percent of them will die.
Harbor seals haul themselves out of the water several times each day to regulate their body temperature, relax, hang out with each other and sleep.
In the Pacific Ocean, harbor seals can be found from Bristol Bay, Alaska, down to Baja California as well as northern Japan up the coast of Asia. They’re also found in coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean. Their numbers total roughly 500,000 worldwide, with about 29,000 in Washington state.
Adult harbor seals are four to seven feet long and weigh 250 to 300 pounds. Their colors range from black to brown with pale spots to silver or gray with black spots. They are the only pinniped — from the Latin for winged foot — to give birth in Puget Sound. Other pinnipeds are seals, seal lions and walruses.
There are more harbor seals than any other marine mammal in Puget Sound. They like to eat mollusks, squid, crustaceans and fish. Their hunger for the latter has earned them enmity through the ages — from the bounty that was placed on them from 1947 to 1960 to the current debate over what to do with seals that gobble up endangered wild salmon.
Sources: Department of Ecology; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; National Marine Services; National Park Service