Harbor seal species profile

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are the most commonly seen marine mammals in the Salish Sea and can be found throughout the region year round. They have been intensively studied within the Salish Sea and this species profile provides an overview of what is known about them. It was produced for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound by the SeaDoc Society. 

Harbor seal vocalizing on rock. Credit: G.E. Davis
Harbor seal vocalizing on rock. Credit: G.E. Davis


Harbor seals are a widely distributed, small phocid species. Within Pinnipedia, the “feather-footed” order of seals, sea lions, and walruses, phocids are “true” or “earless” seals (Walker 1999). Harbor seals can be found along the temperate coastal regions of Europe, North America, and Asia. The subspecies P. v. richardii inhabits the majority of North America’s Pacific coastline, including the Salish Sea. Originally named Halicyon richardii in 1864 by John Edward Gray in honor of Captain George Henry Richards, leader of the 1861 to 1862 British survey expedition along Vancouver Island (Scheffer and Slipp 1944), the Latin name for the harbor seal was changed to P. richardii in 1902, P. v. richardsi in 1904, and finally P. v. richardii in 1942 (Scheffer 1958). In his comprehensive review of harbor seals, Bigg (1969a) used P. v. richardi. The Latin names Phoca vitulina richardsi (Huber et al., 2012 and 2010) and Phoca vitulina richardii (Carretta et al., 2013) are both currently used.

About the Author: 
Zier and Gaydos are with the SeaDoc Society / UC Davis’ Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center