The seal, also called the true or earless seal, is one of three groups that make up the pinniped family. The seal family, Phocidae, is comprised of at least 18 living species and 20 extinct varieties. They are all aquatic mammals and inhabit oceans around the globe, from tropical waters to Antarctic seas.
The crabeater Pacific Harbor seals of Antarctica are believed to be the second most populous mammal on the earth, after human beings. They are also one of the fastest seals alive today, able to achieve swimming speeds of up to 16 miles per hour (25 kph.) Although the exact population of this species is unknown, the most recent estimates suggest somewhere between 8-50 million individual animals exist. Despite their name, the crabeater does not eat crabs, existing on a diet of krill.
Another Antarctic pinniped is the fearsome leopard seal, an apex predator of the reason. Leopard seals are large, weighing up to 705 lb (320 kg) and reaching lengths of up to 9.2 ft (2.8 m.) This species dines on penguins, and has even been known to stalk humans in the area. The leopard seal has appeared as a villain in several recent movies, including Happy Feet, and Eight Below.
Experts believe that the Hawaiian monk seal is one of the oldest forms of seals still alive, existing for perhaps 15 million years. In earlier times, this seal was relentlessly hunted for its pelt, driving the population to dangerously low levels. Despite protection from the US Endangered Species Act, there are only 1,200 of these animals left in the world. Monk varieties of seal have been driven to near extinction around the globe. The Mediterranean monk seal is even rarer than the Hawaiian, and the Caribbean monk seal has been extinct since the 1950s.
Northern and Southern elephant seals are among the largest seal species alive today. Named for the trunk-like protrusion on their faces, bull males can reach 8,000 lbs (3636 kg) and 21 ft (6.3) in length. Despite the near extinction of both varieties during the 19th century, populations have steadily grown since the passing of various protection laws in the 20th century. Both types of elephant seal are noted for their fierce battles during the breeding season, and bark so loudly they may be heard across large distances. During mating season, they populate in enormous numbers along the beaches of their home ranges.
The harp seal is an Arctic species, and is heavily sought after by fur traders for its coat. Pups are particularly sought out by hunters, as the animal is unable to swim, run, or dodge attacks, and their coat is quite valuable during the first few months. Harp seal hunting is typically done by hitting the animal over the head with a large club. Despite large protests by animal activists, in 2006 the Canadian government increased the three-year quota of seal kills to 975,000. Data for the 2006 hunt shows that 325,000 harp seals were slaughtered.
While some seal species are doing well in terms of population, others are considered vulnerable or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.) If you wish to help conservation efforts for seals, many reputable organizations exist that would be appreciative of your volunteer hours or donations. If you object to the hunting of seals for fur, you may wish to aid anti-seal hunt organizations or refuse your business to stores where fur products are sold.