Harbour seal Phoca vitulina

The smaller of our two seal species, harbour seals (also known as common seals) are often found around sheltered shores and estuaries, where they haul out on sandbanks and beaches. The harbour seal be distinguished from grey seals by its smaller size and shorter head with a blunter, more dog-like profile. The species is very variable in colour, from blonde to black, but generally grey with dark spots.


When out of the water, they sometimes hold their body in a curved ‘banana’ position, with their head and tail both in the air at the same time. Like grey seals, they feed on fish, but also eat squids, whelks, crabs and mussels. The young are born during the summer.


Length: 1.2-1.6m

Weight: 45-105kg

Average Lifespan: 20-30 years


Protected in Britain under the Conservation of Seals Act, 1970, and classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Also protected under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985


Found around the coasts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and eastern England.

When to see

January – December


  • When diving after prey, harbour seals usually stay underwater for five to ten minutes at a time. Their blood contains far more haemoglobin than ours, allowing them to store more oxygen in the bloodstream. They also limit their oxygen use by decreasing their heart rate to just 15 beats a minute and diverting blood away from the skin and intestines, to keep the brain and heart functioning.
  • In the 19th Century, harbour seals were hunted in Scotland for their skin which was used to make jackets, boots and sporrans.

Adopt a harbour seal today

Common name

Harbour seal

Species name

Phoca vitulina

IUCN Red List status

Least concern

When to see in Scotland

January – December

Where to see in Scotland

Scottish Wildlife Trust reserves such as Montrose Basin or the Isle of Eigg.

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