Each year, harbor seals along California’s scenic coastline haul themselves onto sandy beaches to give birth to adorable harbor seal pups.
Unfortunately, the pupping season can be a dangerous time for seals. Each year, people who want to glimpse the seals and their pups get far too close to the animals, stressing them, scaring them, and even causing them to abandon their pupping grounds or become separated from their young.
Here at Kayak Connection, we offer wildlife tours led by experienced environmentalists. Our tours are the perfect option for anyone looking to experience the harbor seal pupping season without harming or stressing the animals.
In this blog, we’ll discuss when the pupping season takes place and how to participate responsibly.
Harbor Seals 101: A Brief Overview
Pacific harbor seals (scientific name Phoca vitulina) are some of the most common marine mammals on the West and East Coasts of the US and are a prevalent sight along the Monterey coastline.
Part of the “true seal” family, they’re known for their short, strong flippers, external ear flaps, and slick gray or blotchy bodies.
While they’re excellent swimmers in the water, they move awkwardly on land since their pelvic bones are fused, which prevents them from moving their hind flippers under their bodies to “walk” on land.
Harbor seals are playful, curious animals exquisitely adapted to live at sea. These incredible creatures can dive to a depth of 1640 feet and remain submerged there for more than 20 minutes, although their average dive time is closer to 4 minutes.
Adults weigh up to 285 pounds and can measure 6 feet or more in length. They’re voracious carnivores who hunt animals like crabs, octopuses, and crabs.
When Did Seal Pupping Season Start?
Harbor seals start pupping (giving birth) in February and March and continue through June.
Instead of giving birth in the water, harbor seals prefer protected sandbars, rocky reefs, or warm, sandy beaches.
Unlike other pinniped species, harbor seal babies can swim immediately at birth. They can also dive for up to 2 minutes at three days old.
Since mothers spend more time onshore (about 10-12 hours per day during peak pupping season), this is an excellent time to catch a safe, respectful glimpse of them and their babies.
During pupping season, harbor seals are common in the main channel of Elkhorn Slough, including Moss Landing Harbor and a place called Seal Bend, which we’ll discuss more in the next section.
What is the Best Place to See Seal Pups?
While many popular pupping beaches (like Point Reyes) are closed to protect the seals during peak pupping season, Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing has become famous for seal harbor pup viewing opportunities.
There are so many seals resting in Elkhorn Slough that there is an area called “Seal Bend,” which is an excellent place for people to see seal pups while kayaking.
Elkhorn Slough is open all year round, unlike other popular pupping areas, which put up fencing to keep the public off the beach and a safe distance from the seals and their babies.
That said, there are still plenty of places to view seals from land during pupping season, as long as you stay a safe distance away from the seals. Most of 17 Mile Drive and the area near Cannery Row allows viewing access from land.
What is the Best Way to See Seal Pups?
From the Water
The best way to see seal pups is to book a kayak tour. Viewing the pups and their mothers from the water minimizes stress for the animals and decreases the likelihood that they’ll get frightened and abandon their babies.
It also offers an excellent view of the seals and the opportunity to experience their marine landscape.
Here at Kayak Connection, we offer several kayak tours that are excellent for seeing seal pups.
These are the tours we recommend:
- Wildlife Adventure Tour. Experience Seal Bin in Elkhorn Slough during our Wildlife Adventure Tour! This beginner-friendly tour is the best way to see harbor seal pups during pupping season. No prior kayaking experience is necessary.
- Family Adventure Tour. The Family Adventure tour is a two-hour tour designed with families in mind. During this tour, we’ll see sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, and more. The tour takes place in the protected waters of Elkhorn Slough and is ideal for kids ages three and up.
- Sunset Tour. This two-hour tour takes you through Moss Landing at dusk, when the waters of Moss Landing are glassy and scenic, and harbor seals are most active. This tour requires no prior kayaking experience and is suitable for kids ages 12 and up.
From the Land
If you’d prefer to stay on dry land, you can view harbor seals from several beaches in the Monterey area.
Compared to kayak viewing, beach viewing will put you further away from the animals, which may make it harder to see the seals and their pups.
We recommend bringing your binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens to get a good view. Always stay behind any posted signage, fences, or other barriers erected to protect the seals.
How to View Harbor Seals Responsibly
While the pupping season is an incredible event, it’s also a very sensitive time for marine mammals.
Human encroachment is a longstanding issue in the Monterey Bay area. In addition to affecting harbor seals, it’s also problematic for sea lions and other marine mammals.
Unfortunately, human habituation can be catastrophic for these animals and can ultimately lead to death for the various species that live along our coastline.
Additionally, encroaching on marine mammals is a direct violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was passed in 1972 to maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem, and makes it illegal for people to harass marine mammals.
If you’ve ever experienced the harbor seal pupping season, you know it’s a special event. If you haven’t, you’ll be happy to know that it is possible to view these animals and their babies at a safe, respectful distance.
To protect the mothers and their babies during pupping season, follow these tips for responsible viewing:
1. Leave solitary pups alone
If you see a lone harbor seal pup on a beach during pupping season, do not disturb, move, or touch it.
While the pup may look alone or abandoned, its mother is likely fishing in the water just offshore.
Unfortunately, a mother who detects an on-shore threat won’t always return to her baby:
When mothers are repeatedly disturbed on-site with their pups, they may abandon their young to stay safe in the water instead. To prevent this, avoid disturbing solitary seal pups in any way.
2. Keep your distance
If you approach hauled-out harbor seals and they react with a startle response (lifting their heads is a typical startle response), immediately back away so that you do not stress the group and cause them to flee into the water.
To be as respectful as possible of the seals, we recommend keeping a distance of at least 100-300 feet.
3. Stay quiet
Do not make your presence known visually or audibly. Again, seals will flee into the water when they see or hear humans, and they tend to be sound-sensitive during pupping season.
Every time harbor seals flee the land, it can cause mothers to become separated from their babies.
It also endangers the health of the seals and, in extreme situations, can cause them to abandon their pupping grounds forever.
4. Report sick or injured animals
If you see a harbor seal who is sick, injured, or in distress, do not approach or touch it.
Instead, contact a park ranger and provide the location and description of the animal, noting its color, behavior, size, and other unique physical characteristics, which will allow wildlife professionals to identify it.
To report the animal, call the Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-7325
Experience Harbor Seal Pupping Season This Year
Harbor seal pupping season is an exciting, unique opportunity to see harbor seals and pups in their natural environment.
Fortunately, it’s easy to see the harbor seal pups along California’s coastline by booking a kayak tour with Kayak Connection.
Our reputable guides will help you learn about the harbor seals and the marine environment they live in while also observing them responsibly and ethically.
Contact us today to learn more about our wildlife tours or to secure your spot for the upcoming pupping season.
Harbor Seal FAQ
1. What time of year are baby seals born?
Baby harbor seals are born during a ten-week period during the spring – between March and June.
2. What time of year do seals mate?
Mating season varies depending on the species of seal, but individuals usually mate about six weeks after their pups are born. To mate, harbor seals will return to the same breeding ground each year.
3. How long do seal pups stay with their mothers?
Nursing pups will stay with their mothers for about 4-6 weeks before being weaned and sent out to survive independently. Uniquely, seal pups can swim immediately at birth and can follow their mothers into the water to hunt.
4. What time are seals not active?
Seals haul out to rest on beaches in the late afternoon or early evening after the shade and tide have cooled off the hot sand of the beaches. During the heat of the day, they take to the water to fish and hunt.