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Seals of Atlantic Canada and the Arctic: Five Fin-Footed Friends to Find on Your Next Expedition

© Pierre Richard

Learn how to recognize five common seal species, also known as pinnipeds, that are regularly seen on Adventure Canada expeditions. From grey seals on Sable Island to ringed seals in the Arctic, these intriguing creatures are always a delight to spot, whether from the ship, shore, or Zodiac.
Harbour seal swimming in water

© Pierre Richard

Saguenay River, Québec

Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina)

The harbour seal, also known as the common seal in Europe, has a dog-face appearance, giving it the nickname loup marin ("sea wolf") in French. Around 1.5 metres long, the harbour seal’s pelage varies amongst individuals from sandy yellow to dark grey, spotted with sparse dark spots, and even occasional rings in darker individuals. Harbour seals like to haul out to rest on reefs and sandbars at low tide. They are mostly coastal and prey on a variety of fish and marine invertebrates.

This species inhabits temperate and subarctic waters, from the American east coast to Hudson Bay and southern Baffin Island. Although today this species exists in reduced numbers compared to its historic population in the eastern provinces, you still have a good chance of seeing harbour seals in the Saint Lawrence, as well as along Atlantic Canada’s shores and islands, including Sable Island.

Grey seals on rocks

© Pierre Richard

Bonaventure Island, Québec

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

The grey seal is the most abundant species found year-round in Atlantic Canada, ranging throughout the Saint Lawrence and along Atlantic coastal regions from New England to Labrador. By far the largest population is the one found at Sable Island, where about 400,000 grey seals haul out on the island’s beaches during the reproductive season from December to February. Most of them go to sea to feed after that (they prey mostly on bottom fish but also schooling fish and squid), then return to the island to rest on the beaches in between foraging trips.

Males can reach three metres, while females reach two metres in length. The males’ long snouts earned the species its nickname tête de cheval (“horsehead”). Adolescent males and females also have long snouts, albeit a bit shorter than that male.

Harp seal porpoising through water

© Pierre Richard

Adult harp seal porpoising

Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

In winter, harp seals are the most abundant species in Newfoundland and Labrador, when hundreds of thousands of them haul out onto the ice to mate and give birth to their iconic whitecoat pups. They are also found in large numbers in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence at this time of year. These huge aggregations total to several million harp seals, but they are only seen if you can get access to the offshore pack ice where they reproduce.

In the summertime, only some juveniles and the occasional adult remain in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and around Newfoundland’s waters; otherwise, they move north to the coasts of Labrador and West Greenland and further north into the High Arctic.

Harp seals like to swim upside down raising their noses to the surface to breath. They may also porpoise almost straight out of the water to gain speed. Their black faces and fine snouts are distinctive from other species. They feed mainly on schooling fish, like capelin and Arctic cod, species that are found in abundance in subarctic and Arctic waters.

Bearded seal on ice

© Pierre Richard

Tallurutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound), Nunavut

Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus)

The bearded seal is a true Arctic seal, making its living in icy waters. After the walrus, the bearded seal is the largest pinniped that you will see in Arctic Canada in the summertime. When seen on an ice floe, one cannot avoid noticing how small its head is relative to its bulky body, which reaches about 2.3 metres long in adults.

It is named the bearded seal because of its extensive whiskers. Their prominent mustaches, block-shaped head, and small snout are distinctive when one sees it at sea. Their front flippers are more or less square-shaped, unlike those of other seals, which is why it is sometimes nicknamed the square-flipper seal.

Bearded seal are bottom feeders, feeding on a variety of invertebrates, but their diet is composed mainly of clams, snails, and shrimp. Between dives to the seabed to feed, they will rest at the water’s surface in a logging position. They also tend to be solitary outside of the mating season, although occasionally a few may haul out on the same reef or sandbar to rest.

ringed seal on ice floe

© Pierre Richard

Port Leopold, Nunavut

Ringed Seal (Pusa hispida)

Ringed seals are the most far-ranging species in northern Canada, found across the entire Arctic all the way to Atlantic waters that are fed by the cold Labrador current, including Québec’s North Shore. These are the smallest of our seals (around 1.3 metres long) and may be easily confused with the harbour seal because of its little dog face and small size. However, the ringed seal’s adult pelage is covered in light grey rings over a darker grey back, compared to the mainly spotted harbour seal.

Most of the year, they live under the sea ice, or in snow lairs on top, and are territorial. Nevertheless, in the spring, they are seen hauled out in larger numbers along cracks forming in the melting fast ice. During the open water season, they live a solitary life at sea, foraging in coastal waters. They feed on marine invertebrates and fish and can dive to 100 metres deep to get them.

Despite being the most abundant pinniped species in the Arctic, they are quite easy to miss in open water because of their cryptic coloration, small size, and solitary nature. Nevertheless, you may be lucky to see one swimming inside a bay where the ship has come to anchor. Polar bears, whose diet is largely composed of these small seals, stalk them on the ice throughout the winter and early in the summer season while there is still pack ice to support them. On a few rare occasions, we have been able to see this behaviour from the ship, as well as bears resting near the remnants of their earlier seal kill.

Remember, the best way to spot any wildlife on an expedition is to spend lots of time out on deck, with cameras and binoculars at the ready!

About the Author

Pierre Richard

Pierre Richard

Marine Biologist

Pierre is a north Atlantic and Arctic marine mammal specialist, an avid birder, and a naturalist. He was one of the first naturalists on board Saint Lawrence whale-watching cruises in the 1970s and has been an Adventure Canada marine biologist and guide for nearly twenty years.

For thirty years, Pierre was employed as a marine biologist and scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, during which time he conducted field research on beluga whales, narwhals, and walrus. He has authored many scientific publications and three nature guides on marine mammals.