Natural World The Harbor Seals of Morro Bay

Written by Ruth Ann Angus

February 25, 2021

Harbor seals hauled out and resting on the mudflats in Morro Bay Photos by Ruth Ann Angus

You’re slipping silently through the waters of the back bay in your kayak, and suddenly the surface of the water breaks, a small rounded head appears. Two large dark eyes peer at you intently. Nostrils resting right at the water line flare open and shut and with a whoosh, the head disappears into the depths. You’ve had your first encounter with a harbor seal.
Morro Bay is home to anywhere from 20 to 40 harbor seals. These marine mammals live in colonies that tend to stay in familiar locations and although some may stray afar for awhile, they usually return to their home territory.
Spotted, mottled, dark and light, these little guys come in a variety of decors. Some are light gray with black spots, some brown with gray spots, while others are all-over brownish-black or silver-gray.
Sometimes the location they live in contributes to their coloring as it does in the San Francisco Bay area where many of the harbor seals have a red coloration that comes from a coating of iron oxide that gets deposited on the hair. They are referred to as “red coats’ and up to 40% of the seals in the Bay area have this coloring.
A harbor seal’s diet reflects whatever seasonal or regional prey is available. They like to dine on a variety of fishes, mollusks, crustaceans, and cephalopods. Generally they feed close to shore and it is believed that they develop preferred feeding sites. These seals can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes.
Pupping season ranges from late March to mid-May from San Francisco down through the central coast. Mating takes place in the water but births can occur either on land or in shallow water. Pups can swim almost immediately after birth. Newborns are generally seen in Morro Bay beginning in March and into April.
The pup (usually only one) is a bluish-gray with white below and sticks close to its mother, nursing for about a month.
When pups are a bit older they join together to play, frolic in the shallow water, and slide down the mud banks of haul out sites.
North of Morro Bay at the Elkhorn Slough a large colony of approximately 100 animals uses a haul out area on the mudflats that is relatively protected. Signs have been erected to warn boaters and hikers not to approach too closely.
These hauling out sites are important to the seals that use the areas as prime resting spots and to give birth and nurse their young.
Haul out sites are so important that they are generally chosen based on such things as easy access to the water, low human disturbance, and proximity to good feeding areas. Disturbance by human activity can lead to an abandonment of a haul out site.

In spite of their sensitivity to disturbance, the seals enjoy playing hide and seek with humans. You will find that as you are observing them, they will be watching you too!
While boating near harbor seals in the bay it is possible to get to within 100 feet of the animals before they will dive under water, resurfacing some feet away to stare at you.
Harbor seals are marine mammals and as such are fully protected from harassment by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Fines are stiff so take heed.
It is advisable that while kayaking or canoeing in the back bay you give a wide berth to harbor seals that may be hauled out on mudflats or the banks of the mouth of Chorro Creek. But don’t be surprised if one or two of them suddenly pop up from the depths right next to your boat.
There are several locations locally where you can observe harbor seals. Along with the already mentioned colony in Morro Bay, another colony regularly hauls out on the offshore rocks at Corallina Cove in Montana de Oro. The rocks below the cliffs at Shell Beach near Palisade Avenue and Ocean Boulevard are also a popular spot for the seals. On the north coast you can spot them lounging on the rocks south of San Simeon State Park.

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