Grey seal

For the Elton John song, see Grey Seal (song).
Grey seal
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Caniformia
Superfamily: Pinnipedia
Family: Phocidae
Genus: Halichoerus
Nilsson, 1820
Species: H. grypus
Binomial name
Halichoerus grypus
(Fabricius, 1791)
Grey seal range.[2]

The grey seal (Halichoerus grypus, meaning "hooked-nosed sea pig") is found on both shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is a large seal of the family Phocidae or "true seals". It is the only species classified in the genus Halichoerus. Its name is spelled gray seal in the US; it is also known as Atlantic seal[3] and the horsehead seal.[3][4]


There are two recognized subspecies of this seal:[5]

The type specimen of H. g. grypus (specimen ZMUC M11-1525, caught off the island of Amager) was rediscovered in 2016, and a DNA test showed it belonged to a Baltic Sea specimen rather than from Greenland, as had previously been assumed. The name H. g. grypus was therefore transferred to the Baltic subspecies (replacing H. g. macrorhynchus), and the name H. g. atlantica resurrected for the Atlantic subspecies.[6]

Molecular studies have indicated that the eastern and western Atlantic populations have been genetically distinct for at least one million years, and could potentially be considered as separate subspecies.[7]


It is a large seal, with bulls in the eastern Atlantic populations reaching 2.5–3.3 m (8.2–10.8 ft) long and weighing 170–310 kg (370–680 lb); the cows are much smaller, typically 1.6–2.0 m (5.2–6.6 ft) long and 100–190 kg (220–420 lb) in weight. Individuals from the western Atlantic are often much larger, males reaching 400 kg (880 lb) and females weighing up to 250 kg (550 lb).[8] It is distinguished from the harbor seal by its straight head profile, nostrils set well apart, and fewer spots on its body.[9][10] Gray seals lack external ear flaps and characteristically have large snouts.[11] Bull Greys have larger noses and a less curved profile than common seal bulls. Males are generally darker than females, with lighter patches and often scarring around the neck. Females are silver grey to brown with dark patches.

Ecology and distribution

Group of grey seals on sands at Stiffkey, Norfolk

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the grey seal breeds in several colonies on and around the coasts. Notably large colonies are at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, the Farne Islands off the Northumberland Coast (about 6,000 animals), Orkney and North Rona.[12] off the north coast of Scotland, Lambay Island off the coast of Dublin and Ramsey Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire. In the German Bight, colonies exist off the islands Sylt and Amrum and on Heligoland.[13]

In the Western North Atlantic, the grey seal is typically found in large numbers in the coastal waters of Canada and south to about New Jersey in the United States. In Canada, it is typically seen in areas such as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, the Maritimes, and Quebec. The largest colony in the world is at Sable Island, NS. In the United States it's found year round off the coast of New England, in particular Maine and Massachusetts, and slightly less frequently in the Middle Atlantic States. Archaeological evidence confirms grey seals in southern New England with remains found on Block Island, Martha's Vineyard and near the mouth of the Quinnipiac River in New Haven, Connecticut.[14] Its natural range now extends much further south than previously recognized with confirmed sightings in North Carolina. Also, there is a report by Farley Mowat of historic breeding colonies as far south as Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.[4]

An isolated population exists in the Baltic Sea,[1] forming the H. grypus balticus subspecies.

Besides these very large colonies, many much smaller ones exist, some of which are well known as tourist attractions despite their small size. Such colonies include one on the Carrack rocks in Cornwall.

During the winter months grey seals can be seen hauled out on rocks, islands, and shoals not far from shore, occasionally coming ashore to rest. In the spring recently weaned pups and yearlings occasionally strand on beaches after becoming separated from their group.


Captive grey seal being fed, showing snout shape

The grey seal feeds on a wide variety of fish, mostly benthic or demersal species, taken at depths down to 70 m (230 ft) or more. Sand eels (Ammodytes spp) are important in its diet in many localities. Cod and other gadids, flatfish, herring[15] and skates[16] are also important locally. However, it is clear that the grey seal will eat whatever is available, including octopus[17] and lobsters.[18] The average daily food requirement is estimated to be 5 kg (11 lb), though the seal does not feed every day and it fasts during the breeding season.

Recent observations and studies from Scotland, The Netherlands and Germany show that grey seals will also prey and feed on large animals like harbour seals and harbour porpoises.[19][20][21] In 2014, a male grey seal in the North Sea was documented and filmed killing and cannibalizing 11 pups of its own species over the course of a week. Similar wounds on the carcasses of pups found elsewhere in the region suggest that cannibalism and infanticide may not be uncommon in grey seals. Male grey seals may engage in such behavior potentially as a way of increasing reproductive success through access to easy prey without leaving prime territory.[22]


Cow (l) and bull (r) gray seals mating, Donna Nook, Lincolnshire, U.K.
Few days old pup

The pups are born at around the mass of 14 kg.[23] They are born in autumn (September to November) in the eastern Atlantic and in winter (January to February) in the west, with a dense, soft silky white fur; at first small, they rapidly fatten up on their mothers' extremely fat-rich milk. The milk can consist of up to 60% fat.[23] Within a month or so they shed the pup fur, grow dense waterproof adult fur, and leave for the sea to learn to fish for themselves. In recent years, the number of grey seals has been on the rise in the west and in the U.S.[24] and Canada[25] there have been calls for a seal cull.


After near extirpation from hunting grey seals for oil, meat and skins in the United States, sightings began to increase in the late 1980s. Bounties were paid on all kinds of seals up until 1945 in Maine and 1962 in Massachusetts.[26] One year after Congress passed the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act preventing the harming or harassing of seals, a survey of the entire Maine coast found only 30 grey seals.[26] At first grey seal populations increased slowly then rebounded from islands off Maine to Monomoy Island and Nantucket Island off of southern Cape Cod. The southernmost breeding colony was established on Muskeget Island with five pups born in 1988 and over 2,000 counted in 2008.[27] According to a genetics study, the United States population has formed as a result of recolonization by Canadian seals.[27] By 2009, thousands of grey seals had taken up residence on or near popular swimming beaches on outer Cape Cod, resulting in sightings of great white sharks drawn close to shore to hunt the seals.[28] A count of 15,756 gray seals in southeastern Massachusetts coastal waters was made in 2011 by the National Marine Fisheries Service.[29] Also grey seals are seen increasingly in New York and New Jersey waters, and it's expected that they will establish colonies further south.

In the UK seals are protected under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, however it does not apply to Northern Ireland. In the UK there have also been calls for a cull from some fishermen, claiming that stocks have declined due to the seals.

The population in the Baltic Sea has increased about 8% per year between 1990 and the mid-2000s with the numbers becoming stagnant since 2005. As of 2011 hunting grey seals is legal in Sweden and Finland with 50% of the quota being used. Other anthropogenic causes of death include drowning in fishing gear.[30]


Grey seals have proved amenable to life in captivity and are commonly found zoo animals around their native range, particularly in Europe. Traditionally they were popular circus animals and often used in performances such as balancing and display acts. At least one grey seal, probably escaped from captivity, has been observed in the Black Sea near the coasts of Ukraine.[31]

Elton John performs a song called "Grey Seal" (lyrics by Bernie Taupin) on the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The song attributes wisdom to the seal: "And tell me, grey seal, how does it feel / To be so wise / To see through eyes / That only see what's real?"[32]

Scottish scholar David Thomson published, in 1954, his study of the grey seals, The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend. He discusses "the Celtic seal legend - that the seal was once human, and can sometimes resume human form - and about the Celtic fishing families who still tell and sing the tales and songs about the selchie, or gray Atlantic seal." The Secret of Roan Inish is a 1994 American/Irish film written and directed by John Sayles, which deals with the same materials.

In 2003, the Finnish film The Grey Seals of the Baltic added facts to the legends.


  1. 1 2 Thomspon, D. & Harkonen, T. (2008). "Halichoerus grypus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2008. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
  2. IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2008. Halichoerus grypus. In: IUCN 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2. Downloaded on 25 July 2015.
  3. 1 2 Sokolov, Vladimir (1984). Пятиязычный словарь названий животных. Млекопитающие. Moscow.
  4. 1 2 Mowat, Farley, Sea of Slaughter, Atlantic Monthly Press Publishing, First American Edition, 1984.
  5. Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
  6. Olsen, Morten Tange; Galatius, Anders; Biard, Vincent; Gregersen, Kristian; Kinze, Carl Christian (April 2016). "The forgotten type specimen of the grey seal [Halichoerus grypus (Fabricius, 1791)] from the island of Amager, Denmark". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. doi:10.1111/zoj.12426.
  7. Boskovic, R.; et al. (1996). "Geographic distribution of mitochondrial DNA haplotypes in grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 74 (10): 1787–1796. doi:10.1139/z96-199.
  8. Gray Seal (marine mammals) .
  9. "How to identify British seals". BBC Wildlife. BBC. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  10. Middleton, Kevin. "Get the lowdown on seals". RSPB. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  11. Schuster, Marreno; Glen, Megan (2011). Marine Science: The Dynamic Ocean. US Satellite Laboratory: Pearson. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-13-317063-4.
  12. Stewart, J.E.; et al. (2014). "Finescale ecological niche modeling provides evidence that lactating gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) prefer access to fresh water in order to drink". Marine Mammal Science. 30 (4): 1456–1472. doi:10.1111/mms.12126.
  13. Hahn, Melanie (13 January 2010). "Kegelrobben-Geburtenrekord auf Helgoland". Nordseewolf Magazin (in German). Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  14. Waters, Joseph H. (February 1967). "Gray Seal Remains from Southern New England Archeological Sites". Journal of Mammalogy. 48 (1): 139–141. doi:10.2307/1378182. JSTOR 137818.
  15. Stenman, Olavi (2007). "How does hunting grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) on Bothnian Bay spring ice influence the structure of seal and fish stocks?" (PDF). International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Retrieved 20 November 2011. Analysis of fish otolithes and other hard particles in the alimentary tract showed clearly that the herring (Clupea harengus) was the most important item of prey.
  16. Savenkoff, Claude; Morissette, Lyne; Castonguay, Martin; Swain, Douglas P.; Hammill, Mike O.; Chabot, Denis; Hanson, J. Mark (2008). "Interactions between Marine Mammals and Fisheries: Implications for Cod Recovery". In Chen, Junying; Guo, Chuguang. Ecosystem Ecology Research Trends. Nova Science Publishers. p. 130. ISBN 978-1-60456-183-8.
  17. "Grey seal". Wales Nature & Outdoors. BBC Wales. 25 February 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  18. "The Grey Seal". Ask about Ireland. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  19. Leopold, Mardik F.; Begeman, Lineke; van Bleijswijk, Judith D. L.; IJsseldijk, Lonneke L.; Witte, Harry J.; Gröne, Andrea (2014). "Exposing the grey seal as a major predator of harbour porpoises". Proceedings of the Royal Society. 282 (1798).
  20. van Neer, Abbo; Jensen, Lasse F.; Siebert, Ursula (2015). "Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) predation on harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) on the island of Helgoland, Germany". Journal of Sea Research. 97: 1–4. doi:10.1016/j.seares.2014.11.006.
  21. Hillmer, Angelika (16 February 2015). "Kegelrobben mit großem Appetit auf Schweinswale" [Grey seals with a great appetite for porpoises]. Hamburger Abendblatt (in German).
  22. First video footage of seal drowning and eating a pup. New Scientist (15 February 2016)
  23. 1 2 "Autumn spectacle: grey seal colonies". BBC Earth. 10 October 2014. Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  24. Bidggod, Jess (16 August 2013) Thriving in Cape Cod’s Waters, Gray Seals Draw Fans and Foes. New York Times
  25. Plan to cull 70,000 grey seals gets Senate panel's approval – Newfoundland & Labrador – CBC News. 23 October 2012.
  26. 1 2 Barbara Lelli; David E. Harris & AbouEl-Makarim Aboueissa (2009). "Seal Bounties in Maine and Massachusetts, 1888 to 1962". Northeastern Naturalist. 16 (2): 239–254. doi:10.1656/045.016.0206. Retrieved 2015-06-16.
  27. 1 2 Wood, S.A.; Frasier, T.R.; McLeod, B.A.; Gilbert, J.R.; White, B.N.; Bowen, W.D.; Hammill, M.O.; Waring, G.T.; Brault, S. (2011). "The genetics of recolonization: an analysis of the stock structure of grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) in the northwest Atlantic". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 89 (6): 490–497. doi:10.1139/z11-012.
  28. Once again, coastal waters getting seals’ approval Boston Globe. 3 October 2009.
  29. Gray Seal (Halichoerus grypus grypus): Western North Atlantic Stock (PDF) (Report). NMFS, NOAA. April 2014. pp. 342–350. Retrieved 2015-06-15.
  30. Bäcklin, Britt-Marie; Moraeus, Charlotta; Kunnasranta, Mervi; Isomursu, Marja (2 September 2011). "Health Assessment in the Baltic grey seal (Halichoerus grypus)". HELCOM Indicator Fact Sheets 2011. HELCOM.
  31. Kovtun O.O. (2011) Rare sightings and video-recording of the grey seal, Halichoerus grypus (Fabricius, 1791), in coastal grottoes of the eastern Crimea (Black Sea). Marine Ecological Journal, 10(4):22. (in Russian)
  32. Hudson, Marc (January 19, 2015). "Song lyrics and meaning: Grey Seal by Bernie Taupin (performed by Elton John)". Marc Hudson. Retrieved October 3, 2016.
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