Ocracoke nature, flora & fauna

Spotted on Ocracoke: The Harbor Seal

Harbor seal taken Thanksgiving Day, 2007. Photo by P. Vankevich

Harbor seal taken Thanksgiving Day, 2007 South Point beach on Ocracoke. Photo by P. Vankevich

December 2007
By Peter Vankevich

Ocracoke had a special guest on Thanksgiving Day as a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) showed up at the South Point. It was not relocated the next day. In North America, the general distribution range for harbor Seals includes the coastal waters of the Northern Atlantic (down to New Jersey) and Pacific Oceans, and only occasionally do they show up on the Outer Banks beaches.

They feed primarily on fish and will occasionally eat shrimp and squid. An adult male may grow to six feet and weigh more than 300 pounds. The maximum longevity is up to 25 years for males and slightly longer for females.

Harbor seals became famous after a scuba diver named Harry Goodridge befriended an abandoned seal pup in 1961. For 25 years, the seal, named André, would be released from the Boston Aquarium in the spring and it would swim back to join Harry in Rockport, Maine.

André the seal became the subject of two popular children’s books and a full-featured movie in 1994 starring Keith Carradine and Tina Majorina. Here is some trivia: André was actually played by a trained sea lion, not a seal.

One of the reasons they may appear to some as cute is that harbor seals have large eyes that are adapted for superior vision in water. They do not see very well above water.

This photo was taken with a long lens that permits close-up photos of wildlife without disturbing it. If you ever see a seal on the beach, you should observe it from a distance far enough away to keep it from getting stressed since it could be exhausted, injured or sick.

Also, be aware that even young pups like this one can bite children and dogs.

The Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count will be December 31 and, for the adventurous, the Portsmouth Island count will be on December 30. You don’t have to be an expert to participate, as beginners will be placed with more experienced birders. If you are interested in participating, contact Peter Vankevich at 252 928-2539 or cell 202 468-2871 or by email: petevankevich@gmail.com for details.

 Editor’s Note: The harbor seal was not found the next day and was apparently just resting. NPS Ranger Kenny Ballance said it is common for them to come ashore to dry out a little and then continue on their journey.