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~Facts and fun accumulated by amateur Sealologist Corinne Mona~

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How to Identify and Watch The Magnificent Grey Seal in the Wild

Grey Seal in water

Photo Credit: Oceanwide Expeditions

Scientific name: Halichoerus grypus, Common names: grey seal (spelled gray in the U.S.), horsehead seal, Atlantic seal

Overview of the Grey Seal and Pinnipeds

The grey seal is a north-Atlantic dwelling pinniped and true seal. Pinnipeds are a scientific clade of carnivorous, fin-footed, semiaquatic marine mammals that includes true seals, sea lions, fur seals, and walruses. True seals and sea lions are often confused because of their similar shape and size, while walruses are easily distinguishable by their famous tusks. Fur seals and sea lions appear similar as well, but fur seals have a denser fur coat.

True seals, like the grey seal:

Sea lions:

Comparison of common seal and California sea lion

Credit line: Sea Lion & Seal Identification, NPS (National Park Service)

Luckily, sea lions are rare in the north Atlantic where grey seals live, but it is still important to understand the distinction. Harbor seals (as pictured in the illustration above), however, do inhabit the same waters as grey seals and are often confused. So what makes grey seals unique among true seals?

Seal drawing

Credit: Bill Donohoe - Illustrator

Description: The grey seal is a large-bodied and robust, rotund at the torso and slender toward the hind end. The head is long broad, and flat with no obvious forehead. They are extremely dimorphous - adult males can be up to three times larger than adult females.

Mature males develop a robust neck and chest with prominent folds or wrinkles, and their chests can get scarred from fights with other males. Adult males are typically dark gray, brown, or black with scattered light splotches and dots over their body.

Adult male grey seal

Male grey seal with prominent chest folds. Credit: jidanchaomian

Adult females and young grey seals are mostly light silver or grey with dark brown or black blotches. Their stomachs of adult females and young seals is usually lighter than the rest of their coat.

Two adult females

Two adult grey seal females. Credit: A. Bishop

Pups are born with a long thick white coat (thought to be a holdover from arctic ancestors) and they shed this coat at about two to four weeks to get a muted adult coat. The spotting pattern of grey seals appears to be individually unique and has been used in population studies to identify individuals.

Grey seal pup

Grey seal pup. Credit: The Seals of Nam

Grey seal pup, fat

Another pup. They are so cute! Credit: National Trust/Ian Ward

How to tell grey seals apart from other true seals in the same habitat:

Harbor, harp, hooded, and Bearded Seals occur in many areas of the Grey Seal range in the North Atlantic. Harbor Seals, which may be confused with young Grey Seals, have nostrils set farther apart and eyes located more forward on the face, closer to the nostrils. Harp Seals are substantially smaller and have a distinct dark saddle pattern and a black face. Hooded and Bearded Seals have a pelage similar to that of female Grey Seals. Juvenile and female Hooded Seals have a short blunt snout with large, more forward-pointing nostrils, while adult males are easy to distinguish by their large, flaccid, inflatable nose. Bearded Seals have a short broad snout and a beard of densely packed vibrissae on the upper lip and cheeks. - from Guide to Marine Mammals of the World by the National Audubon Society

Where to see grey seals in the wild:

Map of grey seal range

Credit: Biarritz Aquarium

Grey seals form colonies on rocky island or mainland beaches, though some seals give birth in sea caves and on sea ice, especially in the Baltic Sea. Pups can usually be seen from September to December. Scientists recognize three primary populations of grey seals, all in the northern North Atlantic Ocean.

Advice for seal watching:

Grey seal

Credit: Norfolk Wildlife Trust


Wikipedia Pinniped article


National Park Service

Book: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World by the National Audubon Society

Thank you for visiting Corinne’s Grey Seal Fan Website. If you have any feedback, please email and enjoy seals today!

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