California’s Tiny Flipper Friend: Harbor Seals

Harbor seal on a rock in Monterey Bay. Photo: Dr. Steve Lonhart, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, www.sanctuarysimon.org.

Harbor seal on a rock in Monterey Bay. Photo by Dr. Steve Lonhart, courtesy of NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary www.sanctuarysimon.org.

The waters of California’s Monterey Bay, particularly around the Santa Cruz Wharf, are home to the cute and quite fuzzy harbor seal (Phoca vitulina). The smaller of the wharf’s regular seal visitors, harbor seals can be identified by their ear holes (no flaps) and tiny front flippers that only allow a hauled-out seal to lie flat, like a big sausage. If you happen to visit Santa Cruz, look toward the waters for what resembles a rounded football floating but then sinks beneath the surface and disappears. This is the typical foraging behavior of the harbor seal as it prowls the bottom for its food and surfaces for a short time to breath and look around.

Harbor seals. These are hanging out on the rocks on the beach at Wilder Ranch

Harbor seals. These are hanging out on the rocks on the beach at Wilder Ranch, in Santa Cruz, California.

Harbor seals favor coastal waters near shore and are often seen on rocky islands, sandy beaches, mudflats, bays, and estuaries. They normally haul out on sandy beaches and low rock ledges. They don’t climb well and are leery of humans, so you’re likely to see them only in the water and kelp around the wharf. Some of the best places to spot a harbor seal out of the water are at isolated beaches, such as the cliffs at Wilder Ranch, north of Santa Cruz off Highway 1.

This fellow chose what looks like a pretty uncomfortable resting area. Photo: Crystal Birns Photography.

This fellow chose what looks like a pretty uncomfortable resting area. Photo: Crystal Birns Photography.

Population and Characteristics

Worldwide, harbor seals are found north of the equator in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The total population is estimated to be about 500,000. In the United States, they range from Alaska to Baja California, with a population of about 35,000 along the California coast. They eat mostly small fish, squid, and octopus but are known to be opportunistic feeders, so they eat just about anything they can find in the kelp and on the ocean floor.

Harbor seals resting in a kelp canopy inside Point Lobos State Marine Reserve, near Carmel, California. Photo: Chad King, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary,  www.sanctuarysimon.org.

Harbor seals resting in a kelp canopy inside Point Lobos State Marine Reserve, near Carmel, California. Photo: Chad King, courtesy of NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, www.sanctuarysimon.org.

Read the rest of the story and learn the identifying marks of harbor seals here at MobileRanger.com.

Like the Content? It’s by and © Mobile Ranger. Check out all our blogposts and our free mobile app with eleven AppTours of the Santa Cruz coast at www.mobileranger.com. Please like us on Facebook!


Julia Gaudinski


Leave a Comment