Harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.Map Help



The harp seal Phoca groenlandica is member of the 'true seal' family. Like all true seals, it has a tapering and pointed muzzle, small, clawed pectoral flippers, and small hind flippers that cannot rotate under the body. Like similar species, it has beaded whiskers on the muzzle.The harp seal is a moderately plump seal, with a small, slightly pointed head and a moderately thick neck. It can reach 1.9 m in length. It has a short muzzle and moderately large eyes. It is most easily recognised by the its colour pattern. It has a silvery white body, with a black head and a broad swath of black on either side meeting at the shoulders. Some harp seals may occasionally be more of a sooty grey or with scattered black blotches.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Usually found much further north than the British Isles, the harp seal has been recorded in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland and in the Shetlands.

Global distribution



The harp seal inhabits cold waters close to the shore.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • Bulky body up to 1.9 m in length.
  • Small tapering muzzle with beaded whiskers.
  • Short, thick neck.
  • No external ear.
  • Small pectoral and hind flippers.
  • Silvery white body with black head and a large black swath on each side meeting over the shoulders.

Additional information

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  1. BMLSS (British Marine Life Study Society), 2008. Sea Mammals: Seals Page. www.glaucus.org.uk/seals1.htm, 2008-03-13

  2. Corbet, G.B. & Southern, H.N., 1977. The handbook of British Mammals. 2nd edition. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford & London.

  3. Evans, P.G.H. & Raga, J. A. (ed.), 2001. Marine mammals: biology and conservation New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers

  4. Hewer, H.R. 1974. British Seals. London : Collins

  5. Howson, C.M. & Picton, B.E., 1997. The species directory of the marine fauna and flora of the British Isles and surrounding seas. Belfast: Ulster Museum. [Ulster Museum publication, no. 276.]

  6. Kinze, C. C., 2002. Photographic Guide to the Marine Mammals of the North Atlantic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  7. Nowak, R.M., 2003. Walker's Marine Mammals of the World. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

  8. Shetland Sea Mammal Group 2008. Vagrant Seals in Shetland. www.nature-shetland.co.uk/seamammal/rareseals.htm, 2008-03-13


  1. Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre, 2017. BRERC species records recorded over 15 years ago. Occurrence dataset: https://doi.org/10.15468/h1ln5p accessed via GBIF.org on 2018-09-25.

  2. NBN (National Biodiversity Network) Atlas. Available from: https://www.nbnatlas.org.

  3. Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, 2017. NBIS Records to December 2016. Occurrence dataset: https://doi.org/10.15468/jca5lo accessed via GBIF.org on 2018-10-01.

  4. OBIS (Ocean Biodiversity Information System),  2024. Global map of species distribution using gridded data. Available from: Ocean Biogeographic Information System. www.iobis.org. Accessed: 2024-06-12


This review can be cited as:

Barnes, M.K.S. 2008. Pagophilus groenlandicus Harp seal. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 12-06-2024]. Available from: https://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/detail/125

Last Updated: 02/06/2008