Animal of the Week: harbor seal

Elvis the harbor seal came to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in February 2015. He loves to have his nose rubbed and scratched by trainers. Check for him during your next visit to the underwater windows in the seal and sea lion exhibit. (Photo courtesy of the Oregon Coast Aquarium)

Coastal residents and frequent visitors will easily recognize this week’s spotlighted animal, because the harbor seal or phoca vitulina is one of the many marine mammals that live on the Oregon coast.

Though their spotted coloration varies widely from near white to black, those spots are distinctive and it’s easy to recognize a harbor seal when a few key traits are also observed: its front and rear flippers are short, it has no external ear flaps and it’s usually around 5.5 feet long and 250 pounds at maturity. Unlike sea lions, male and female harbor seals are similar in size and appearance.

Harbor seals also swim in an interesting way; they propel themselves through side-to-side motions of their back flippers while steering with their front flippers.

These marine mammals like to dine on herring, hake, rockfish, salmon, sole, flounder, tomcod, sculpins and lampreys. They’re not just interested in fish, though. Harbor seals will also eat crustaceans and mollusks — including squid and octopuses.

Because of their similar taste in fish to humans, harbor seals are thought by some to “compete” with commercial fisheries for food sources. This myth, unfortunately, has led to many harbor seal deaths at the hands of humans. However, now harbor seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which also prevents them from being hunted for their hides, oil and meat. Here, on the West Coast, populations are stable.

Those who wish to see a harbor seal up close can take a walk down around where they hang out, in nearshore waters, bays and estuaries, or they can up their chances of spotting one of these spotted creatures by visiting the Oregon Coast Aquarium when it reopens. Elvis the harbor seal is the mascot for his species there, where he has been living in the Seal and Sea Lion Exhibit since 2015. To learn more about Elvis and his exhibit-mates, visit aquarium.org.

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