MARS: Seals find home around the Island

Harbour seal

Harbour seal

Seal pups are enchanting little mammals that are hard to ignore when they appear to be abandoned on the beach.

Helpless and vulnerable, the pups are often picked up by well meaning people who do not understand the habits of these seals. The waters around Vancouver Island are home to the Pacific Harbour seals and occasionally northern fur seals and stellar sea lions.

Harbour seals are easily identified by the silver grey coats which are adorned with a variety of darker ‘dots and splotches.’ These seals are not always welcome by sport fisherman as they will rob them of the fish as it nears the boat, however they are an essential part of the food chain being the top of the Orca whales menu.

All seals have torpedo-shaped bodies that are perfectly designed for speed and agility when diving or swimming. Although seals are agile in the water they appear awkward and clumsy on dry land.

Unlike other seals that are able to move their bodies like a caterpillar, supporting their body weight on long strong front legs, harbour seals push off with their front flippers and ‘flop’ forward on their bellies.

Harbour seals spend equal time on land and in the water; coastal shorelines are their favourite habitat, but as their name suggests they are also found in marine harbours, rivers and their estuaries.

As social animals, seals will have a communal ‘haul out’ spot where they will bask in the sun. By dramatically lowering their heart rate, seals are able to stay under water for approximately 40 minutes allowing them to sleep, during which they will rise subconsciously to the surface to breathe.

Seals have long whiskers around their mouths that are equipped with sensitive nerves that help them to sense pressure changes under water indicating the close proximity of prey. Harbour seals are opportunistic feeders with large appetites consuming between two to three kilograms of seafood a day.

Salmon is their favourite food but they will dine on a variety of flat fish, shellfish and octopus. Seal pups are nursed by their mothers on rich milk — this is critical for the pup’s survival as the mother passes on vital antibodies.

Last week, M.A.R.S. had two reports of ‘abandoned’ seal pups, one still had the remnants of an umbilical cord.

Usually the seal pup reports are mistaken for healthy pups that have been left on the beach around the high tide mark allowing the mother to feed and replenish her milk supply before returning to nurse the pup.

If you find a seal pup, leave it where it is and do not attempt to pick it up; a healthy pup will have clear oily eyes and be plump with no wrinkled skin.

Dull, cloudy eyes and mucous around the nose are indications of a sick pup, they are prone to respiratory diseases and this often results in pneumonia.

Please call M.A.R.S. at 250-337-2021 in advance before intervening with a pup. We work closely with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre which rehabilitates seals and releases them if possible back to the wild.

A huge thank you to Norm who donates his time and helicopter to fly seal pups and other injured wildlife between local wildlife rehabilitation centres.

For further information regarding wildlife species or our events and educational programs, visit




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