Harbor Seal

Harbor Seal

[ Phoca vitulina ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: male: 4.5 to 6.3 feet; female: 4.5 to 5.5 feet

male: up to 375 pounds; female: 150 to 300 pounds


mainly fish, shellfish, and crustaceans

ZOO DIET: herring and capelin
DISTRIBUTION: North Atlantic and North Pacific coastlines

cool coastal waters and estuaries


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Pinniped Family Puzzle
Harbor seals, also known as common seals, belong to a group of animals called pinnipeds. This animal group includes the marine mammals’ seals, seal lions, and walruses. The word pinniped means “fin-footed” in Latin and with four powerful flippers, harbor seals can dive to depths over 330 feet – that’s as tall as a 30 story building! They swim swim using powerful sideways movements from hind flippers, reaching speeds of 10 to 15 miles per hour. A harbor seal's tiny yet strong front flippers are only used for steering.

Big, bouncing babies
After a gestation period of 11 months, baby harbor seals are born between February and July, tipping the scale at almost 30 pounds! Within hours of being born, pups can swim and dive although they’re often spotted hitching a ride on their mother’s back. To get their mother’s attention, pups make a bleating noise that sounds a little like “maaaaa.” After approximately four weeks of feeding on their mother’s rich, fatty milk, pups are weaned. At this point, they've doubled in size and weight over 60 pounds. Once weaned, the pup is on its own and starts hunting small crustaceans and eventually feeds on larger fish.

Harbor seals are members of the Family Phocidae – these “phocids” are known as the true seals or earless seals. Seals are often confused with sea lions but look at the ears to know for sure: seals do not have ear flips and sea lions do!

Day in the life of a harbor seal
Harbor seals spend most of their day swimming, but will haul out of the water to rest and sleep. While swimming, they’re often upside down, which allows them get a more complete view of what’s beneath them. This is especially important when it comes to avoiding hungry predators as well as hunting for an ocean meal! When it comes to sleeping, harbor seals sometimes float on top of the water in a position known as bottling. At Brookfield Zoo, our harbor seals are often spotted sleeping on the bottom of the pool for 20 minutes or longer!

When on land, harbor seals spend time near other pinnipeds, such as sea lions and elephant seals. However, harbor seals rarely interact with other animals, but can show aggression – growling, snorting, and waving front flippers – if they feel threatened.

The Harbor seals also are fed three to four times daily in training sessions with their trainers. During the training sessions, much of the focus is put on teaching the seals to cooperate in their own veterinary care. So you may get a chance to see a seal practicing for an ultrasound exam, having their teeth brushed, or maybe even having a practice x-ray.

Harbor Seals at Brookfield Zoo
Pinniped Point is home to three female harbor seals, one male and three females – Scooter, Banda, Sterling, and Mango. Banda and Sterling are both 25, and Mango is 6. If you visit the underwater viewing of Pinniped Point in the early morning, you’re in for a real treat. You might catch our male harbor seal exhibiting his territorial display, which includes interesting bubble displays and vocalizations loud enough to be heard through the glass!

Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo is accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.

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Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society