Harp seals get their name from the harp-shaped pattern on the back and sides of adults that appears once their fur molts each year. Some people call them saddleback seals due to the markings. The seals migrate long distances to their birthing grounds each year to give birth to fluffy white pups before swimming north to their summer feeding grounds.
Adult harp seals reach up to almost 6 feet in length, weighing over 275 pounds. Adult seals sport silvery-gray fur with black splotches. The seals live up to 35 years in the wild.
Seals go through several life stages starting with the yellowjacket stage when newborn pups sport white fur tinted yellow from the placental fluid. The pups weigh about 24 pounds and measure up to 3 feet in length when born. A few days later, the yellow tint disappears from the white fur. During this time, the pups nurse on their mother’s milk, tripling t heir weight in just 12 days, according to the Harp Seals Organization. The pups start to molt, and about 18 days later, the seal’s white coat completely changes to the silvery gray of the adults. The pups learn to swim at this stage, and soon hunt on their own. Males reach maturity at around 7 to 8 years of age while females reach maturity between 4 to 6 years old.
Harp seals spend most of their lives in the water except when they breed on pack ice. The seals live in the far north Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. According to the Seal Conservation Society, three distinct populations of harp seals exist. The northwest Atlantic population breeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as well as off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland. The east Greenland harp seal population breeds near Jan Mayen Island while the Barents Sea population breeds in the White Sea.
In late September, the seals start migrating southward to reach their birthing grounds. The seals gather on dense breeding patches of float ice where the males call, blow bubbles underwater, make pawing gestures and chase the females in hopes of mating. The females give birth to pups born in late February through early April.
Harp seals rely on the ocean’s marine life for all of their food. They eat cod, herring, halibut, small crabs and shrimp as well as krill. The seals dive up to 300 feet and can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes to find prey.
After a public outcry, the European Economic Community instituted a ban in 1983 on the import of whitecoat products from baby seals killed between 2 to 3 weeks in age. In 1987, Canada also banned hunting for the baby seals for commercial purposes, but adult seals still get hunted. To help the harp seal populations, conservation groups have documented violations of the laws and helped to prosecute violators. According to the Harp Seals Organization, over fishing also affects harp seal populations by reducing the amount of prey available.