Where have all the Ice Seals gone?

Posted on January 22, 2021


Ashley Stokes | Marine Mammal Rescue Manager

Healthy juvenile harp seal rests on the rocky shore in Hampton, NH (Feb. 2019).

New Englanders are accustomed to seeing harbor seals and their larger gray seal cousins on our coast’s sandy beaches and rocky shores. But did you know that during the winter season, two very unique visitors venture down from the Arctic (and we’re not talking about Santa Claus and his reindeer)? Harp seals and hooded seals, often of the juvenile age class, move south into our region as the snow starts to fall and temperatures plummet. Frigid seascapes of the North Atlantic are naturally a part of these two species’ range, and so it’s important to understand how you can help SSC’s Marine Mammal Rescue Team identify and protect these visiting marine mammals! 

The coats on these juvenile seals are very easy to tell apart. Juvenile harp seals (referred to as ‘beaters’) are cream colored with varying brown spots, while juvenile hooded seals (referred to as ‘bluebacks’) have a light colored belly and dark silvery-gray back, which almost has a deep blue hue in the right light. 

Juvenile harp seal rides an ice floe out in the marsh in Rye, NH (March 2015).

Last winter our rescue team was kept very busy with these arctic beauties; mostly harps, recording our highest number of responses since the program began in 2014. So far this winter though, we have only received one report (just yesterday!) of an ice seal within our response territory (NH/ME border south through Essex, MA) and have only heard about a couple others within the Greater Atlantic Regional Network (Maine through Virginia). It’s hard to say why this is, but it’s certainly plausible that it coincides with our milder and nearly snowless winter thus far.

Keeping a safe distance of at least 150 feet between yourself and any seal is not only federal regulation, but it’s also crucial for the health and well-being of ice seals. Harp and hooded seals have adapted to eat snow and ice to keep hydrated, but sometimes mistake sand and rocks for snow/ice. These two species are known to “stress eat” by ingesting sand and small rocks when they become stressed by human presence, or don’t feel well. So please help us keep these animals safe, and remember to report sightings to our 24/7 reporting hotline at 603-997-9448.  

Juvenile hooded seal, Patronus, being released after rehabilitation (Feb. 2019).


Learn more about Ice Seals in New England by watching this presentation by Brian and Marine Mammal Rescue Manager Ashley Stokes:


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