Grey Seal, Halichoerus grypus

The grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), known as the gray seal in the United States is a species that can be found on shores on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean. Its other common names include the Atlantic grey seal and the horsehead seal, because of its elongated nose. It has a large range on the shores of Ireland and Great Britain, with larger populations residing in areas including the Farne Islands near the Northumberland Coast, North Rona near northern Scotland, and Ramsey Island near coastal Pembrokeshire. Populations also occur on the Amrum and Sylt islands, as well as on Heligoland. Some of the areas within this portion of its range are only inhabited during the breeding season.

The Western area of its range is not highly fragmented, and primarily stretches from the waters off the coast of Canada to New Jersey in the south. In Canada it is most often found in areas like Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, and the Maritimes, although the largest population can be found on Sable Island on Nova Scotia. In the United Sates, it inhabits areas in New England year round, with larger populations occurring in Maine and Massachusetts. Its native western range extends to Virginia. There is a small population in the Baltic Sea known as the subspecies H. grypus balticus.

The grey seal differs in size and appearance depending on the sex. Males reach an average body length between 8.2 and 11 feet, with a weight of up to 680 pounds. Females are significantly smaller reaching an average body length between 5.2 and 6.6 feet, with a weight of up to 420 pounds. Males of this species are darker than females, with visible scarring on the neck. Females can range from silvery grey to brown in color, with light patches along the body.

During the winter season, the grey seal will move out of the water and remain on land for a period. It can be seen laying on rocks, shoals, and islands off the shores of its range. Weaned pups will sometimes be separated from their group in the spring. Pups are born in late fall during the months of September to November in its eastern range and in winter between the months of January to February in the western area of its range. Pups are born small with soft, white fur, but quickly grow within the first month, losing their baby fur to waterproof fur.

The diet of the grey seal consists of many types of fish, specifically those that can be found near the sea floor or close above it. This species can be found at elevations below 230 feet and below. The most important components of its diet include sand eels, herring, flatfish, cod, and skates. If these preferred fish types are not available, it will eat almost anything including octopuses and lobster. It can eat up to eleven pounds of food per day, although this is not required, but it will fast during the breeding season when it does not enter the water.

In recent years, the population numbers of the grey seal have been on the rise in both Canada and the United States. Until 1962, seal populations in Maine were periodically culled, but this was made illegal in 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. This law made it illegal to hurt or harass seal populations and caused the population numbers to grow. In 2009, the seal population had grown so much that they began living near popular beaches, and Great white sharks began hunting them there. Grey seals have been increasing in New York and New Jersey, causing some experts to believe that the species may hold a range farther south in the future.  In the United Kingdom, the grey seal is protected by the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, but this protection is absent in Northern Ireland. Although it is protected in the U.K., some fisherman have seen it as a threat to their business due to the large amount of fish each seal can eat. This species is not threatened by overhunting in any area of its range, although it is thought that culling may need to be conducting in Canada. The grey seal appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Least Concern.â€

Image Caption: Grey Seal, Halichoerus grypus. Credit: Mateusz Włodarczyk/Wikipedia  (CC BY-SA 3.0)