Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are the quiet marine mammals resting on near shore rocks along the Point Lobos shoreline. They have spotted coats in a variety of shades from white or silver-gray to dark brown. The quiet behavior and camouflage coloration can make them easy to miss. Look carefully and you will find many seals here year round.
Harbor seals are torpedo-shaped and have short flippers. They can’t “walk” on land the way a sea lion can. Instead they flop along on their bellies. The awkward movement on land is in sharp contrast to their excellent adaptation underwater. They are graceful, curious and speedy swimmers, propelled by the webbed hind flipper. Unfortunately seals can’t out-swim their only predators - sharks and orcas.
They have no external ear flaps, just ear holes. This characteristic defines their group as “true seals.” Males tend to be slightly larger than females and can reach up to 250 pounds. The average length is 5 - 6 feet. They can live up to 20 years (males) and up to 30 years (females).
Harbor seals don’t migrate far from home. The seals you see today could be the same seals you see on your next visit to Point Lobos. Memorize the color and design of spots, unique to each seal, and you might even be able to find a familiar face!
They are day-sleepers, frequently misunderstood as lazy if you don't realize they are nocturnal hunters. At nighttime they hunt within several miles of shore for fish, crabs, squid and octopus. Their large eyes and sensitive whiskers help locate prey. The average dive lasts less than 10 minutes and is relatively shallow, less than 300 feet.
Hauling out to rest and sleep is an important part of a seal’s routine. They spend about half their time on land and half in water. They can also sleep while in water. If you see just the nose of a seal sticking above the water, it’s in a resting position called “bottling.” While on land they are skittish and frighten easily. When watching seals it’s important to avoid loud noises and to maintain a distance that does not disturb them.
Respectful observation of seals is especially important during the pupping season. You can view this natural wonder in April and May at two primary locations within Point Lobos - Whalers Cove beach and China Cove beach. China Cove beach is closed during pupping season but the trail above offers a bird’s-eye view.
Female seals mature at 3-4 years. They can have one pup per year after a 9-month gestation. Gestation can be preceded by up to 3 months of delayed implantation. Expectant moms congregate at the same rookeries, usually beaches, where they were born. Pups weigh about 20 pounds and can swim within minutes of birth. Pups are nursed on mom’s rich milk and double their weight before weaning at approximately 4 weeks. After weaning, the previously devoted mom leaves the pup on its own.
Then it’s time to start the cycle again. Mating season is June through August. Males gather near rookeries to compete with other males and attract females by slapping the water with their flippers. Mating occurs under water.