Seals, compared to their Sea lion cousins, mostly live in Polar ocean regions around the Arctic and Antarctic, like the Harp and Leopard Seals. There are species, like the Monk Seal, who do not live in the cold polar regions and tend to live in the warm waters closer to the equators around the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Hawaii. Other species like Harbor and Northern Elephant Seals can be found along the US Pacific coast as far South as Baja, California. Seals spend about two-thirds of their lives in the ocean, and typically stay close to areas where they can get out of the water, like ice shelves, rocks, or beaches.
What are Seals?
Seals are semi-aquatic mammals, meaning that although they spend much of their time in the water, they also spend time out of the water as well. You can often spot seals basking on beaches, rocks, or ice shelves while taking a break. Seals evolved into water-dwelling creatures about 24 million years ago. They have very sleek bodies to help with smooth swimming, and those who live in colder waters have thick layers of blubber to keep them warm. Seals also have large eyes that are specially adapted for seeing underwater and whiskers, called vibrissae, to help them sense movement in murky waters. Seals propel themselves through the water using their back fins, and steer using their front flippers.
Unlike Sea lions, Seals are much less social and sometimes solitary. Some species like the Elephant Seal will congregate on land, but when in the water they tend to be alone. Other species, like the Harbor Seal, only spend a lot of time with others when it is breeding season. Seals do not bark like Sea Lions do, instead they communicate through growling and snorting. Many Seals will use their flippers to communicate as well. When Seals do congregate during breeding season, like the Grey Seal, they tend to antagonize each other and compete for mates. Elephant Seals have fierce fights during breeding season, where large males will compete in an impressive battle.
Seals are carnivores, meaning their diets consist of only meat. Their main food source is fish, however, Seals may consume other types of prey like octopus, shrimp, seabirds, smaller mammals, and more. Leopard Seals tend to prey on Penguins in their habitat. Although Seals are considered Apex predators, they are also prey to species such as the Orca, Sharks, and sometimes even land predators like Wolves or Bears. Seals will spend a lot of time in the water hunting during the warm season, and some species can catch up to 2000 fish a day!
Female seals give birth to only one pup a year because their gestation period is so long. Seals are ready to mate at around 6 years old but sometimes it takes longer for males, who must grow big and strong enough to win against other males. The gestation period for earless Seals is about 11 months, and then the female Seal will give birth to her pup on land. Seal pups will stay with their mother and learn everything they can from her in only 3 – 6 weeks, before they are left on their own. Some species are very attentive to their pups and do not leave their side, while others will leave their pups on their own for extended periods of time, checking on them occasionally to nurse them. All pups are born with a fuzzy and furry layer of hair. Once they are old enough, this hair will molt, revealing a sleeker layer, better for swimming.
Seals face many threats, especially because many live in the polar regions, where temperatures are rapidly changing. Because Seals have a lot of blubber, many seal species were hunted close to extinction when people used their meat for food, and their blubber for oil. Many seal hunts still occur throughout the world today. Many seal species depend on the sea ice as their home, with rising ocean temperatures, sea ice is rapidly declining, causing Seal habitat to disappear. Like many ocean dwelling animals, seals are also often accidentally caught in fishing nets and ingest plastic and other trash that gets into their ocean habitat.
Although Seals face many threats, some species have been able to stabilize their populations thanks to their protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Species, like the Elephant Seal, who were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s have made a full population recovery to where they were before hunting! Some species, however, like the critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal have only about 1600 individuals left in the wild and are struggling to bring their numbers up. They face many threats like fishing net entanglement, intentional harm from humans, and exposure to Toxoplasmosis, which is a toxic disease for these Seals. Seal populations may face many threats but luckily, thanks to major conservation efforts, many Seal populations around the world are stable with good numbers. However, Seal populations still need our help to keep their populations healthy, and to help the Seal species who are endangered or critically endangered like the Baikal, Ringed, and Monk Seals!
How to Help
Seals need our help, here are some ways you can help Seal populations around the world. Keep nature clean! All trash that gets into the environment can harm animals everywhere. Trash in the ocean can be accidentally eaten by seals which can be deadly. Give wild Seals space! Seals, like all wild animals, need their space respected. When you approach wild Seals, they may feel threatened, which can put you and the Seal in danger. Avoid using toxic chemicals, especially in your yard. Toxic chemicals can run off into oceans, lakes, and rivers, harming the ecosystem and all the animals who live in it. Share your enthusiasm! When you teach others about what you have learned about Seals, you can help build a community of people who want to make a difference! Education is the biggest way to get people involved and excited about these amazing creatures.