Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are the most common and abundant marine mammal in the Salish Sea, and you are very likely to encounter them while you’re on charter. Harbor seals are quite small for marine mammals. Full grown, they average 5-6″ long and weigh around 300 lbs. They range in color from grey to tan, and most have spots, giving them a mottled appearance that provides excellent camouflage. Harbor seals are “true seals” because they lack external ear flaps. There are over 500 harbor seal haul out sites in Washington State alone, and if you’re lucky you will spot a large group of them sunning on the shore, or even doing their entertaining, shuffling-type movement on land. The only predators of the harbor seals in the San Juan Islands are the transient orca pods that occasionally hunt in the area. The resident pods do not eat marine mammals; their diet consists exclusively of fish, especially salmon. The lack of predation has allowed the harbor seal population to remain high in the Salish Sea, even though historically they were hunted for their fur, meat, and blubber. Harbor seals do not migrate seasonally, so you will be able to spot some no matter what time of year you visit the San Juans. They haul out most often, however, during the mid to late summer, after pupping season. During the same time of year we regularly have a group of seals hauled out on the docks around the San Juan Sailing office!
The most famous harbor seal in the San Juan Islands is Popeye. Popeye is a female harbor seal that has been a regular visitor to Friday Harbor since 1995. She is so common a site there that in 2005 the Port of Friday Harbor named her the official seal of the harbor! Popeye is easily recognizable because her left eye is a cloudy white color. Keep an eye out for her during your visit to Friday Harbor, and make sure to visit her granite statue in Fairweather park, located right next to the marina.