Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
The harp seal's range includes the Arctic Ocean, the North Atlantic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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With her keen sense of smell, a mother harp seal can pick out her pup from among hundreds of other youngsters.

Scientific name: Phoca groenlandica (also Pagophilus groenlandicus)
Average weight: 130 kg–135 kg (female smaller than male)
Average length: 1.4 m–1.9 m
Average lifespan: 30 years or more
A close-up of a harp seal on ice.



The harp seal has an irregular, dark V-shaped mark on its back that resembles a harp, hence its common name. It is also sometimes referred to as a “saddleback.” This feature is most distinctive in the male. The adult has a whitish to greyish body and a completely black face. The female is typically more mottled and lighter in colour. The female usually gives birth to one pup a year. A signature of the species is the pup’s snow-white coat.

Although the harp seal lives in the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic, it is born without any protective fat. The young pup’s fuzzy coat helps keep it warm, and its mother’s rich milk enables it to quickly develop a thick insulating layer of blubber. It is weaned when it is 10 to 15 days old; by that time, it has learned to swim. The pup undergoes a series of moults before reaching full adulthood at about four to five years of age. At birth, it is called a “whitecoat”; the pup then progresses to a “greycoat,” a “beater” and, finally, a “bedlamer.”

Habitat and behaviour

A highly social animal, the harp seal lives most of its life in herds numbering several hundred. Compared with other seal species, the harp seal is not a particularly strong diver. It can stay underwater for up to 18 minutes at a maximum depth of 400 metres, but most foraging dives last for only two to three minutes and rarely exceed 90 metres.

The seal’s diet includes a wide variety of fish and invertebrates but consists primarily of small fish such as caplin, Arctic cod and polar cod. Its main predators are polar bears, humans, orcas and sharks.

The harp seal is an aquatic creature, but a large portion of its life revolves around the ice. It mates, moults and gives birth on the ice. During courtship, males fight tooth and flipper over females. Whelping occurs on haul-out sites on floating pack ice from mid-February to early March, and the female mates again as soon as her pup is weaned. In the spring, the harp seal can travel up to 3,000 kilometres, round trip, between its wintering grounds and its summer feeding grounds.


Based on its breeding grounds, the harp seal can be divided into three distinct populations found throughout the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic. The largest, at an estimated 5.2 million seals, is the Northwest Atlantic herd, which breeds within the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. The other two populations can be found in the White Sea, near Russia, and in the Greenland Sea.