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Nature Notes: Mermaid of Harpswell

Ed Robinson
July 28, 2013

Ancient mariners told wonderful tales about seeing mermaids near distant shores, thanks to long voyages, poor nutrition, sparse female companionship and too much rum. It often turned out that those “mermaids” with lovely dark eyes, long lashes and haunting gazes were harbor seals. Having been surprised many times by a seal popping up while I was hauling lobster pots, I can see how those lonely sailors might have been confused.

harbor seal sticks face out of water

Harbor seal (D Pilipenko iStock photo)

We are lucky to have many seals in Harpswell, and they are found along the entire coast of Maine. Sometimes called “common seals,” these are the most widely spread members of the pinniped family (includes eared seals and walruses), found in the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the North and Baltic Seas. While these seals used to be hunted for food and to eliminate them as competition for fish, the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibited killing seals in the US. Local and NOAA ordinances also require leaving seals unmolested unless the seal is in imminent danger.

Thanks to this protection, seals are recovering in numbers, with a global population now estimated at 5-6 million. The coast of Harpswell is well suited to seals, offering rocky outcroppings, mud flats and ice banks for resting and a variety of foods in the sea. Predators include sharks, whales and polar bears but Harpswell does not suffer from too many of these!

These rotund creatures can be found in a range of colors from dark brown, to tan or gray, with the upper body darker than the belly. Each seal can be recognized by a unique pattern of spots. The head is rounded, with no ear flaps, and flippers are short. Nine months after the males fight each other for breeding rights, the female gives birth on shore to a single pup each year. The female alone raises her pup, providing a rich, fatty milk, and the pups are capable of swimming and diving within hours of birth.

While we generally see seals resting on the rocks or swimming near harbors, they are capable of long trips to sea in search of food. They will also travel up stream in fresh water rivers in search of fish and other prey. Favored food species include menhaden, sea bass, herring, mackerel, flatfish and occasionally seabirds, shrimp, crabs, mollusks and squid. Given their bulk, up to 6 feet long and 380 pounds, these mammals are not high speed swimmers, but they have been recorded making dives up to 1500 feet!

After breeding, seals spend a considerable amount of time resting on shore as they moult. Excess disturbance at this time is disruptive to their lifestyle, so we need to keep our distance and respect their privacy. So when you speed by in your boat, or drift up to them in your kayak, please remember to give the seals some space so we can continue to enjoy their gentle presence upon our shorelines.

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