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Grey Seals on the Norfolk coast and the sad reality of human interaction

At the end of January I travelled up to the Norfolk Coast to photograph Seals. Having visited last year, I was really keen to get there again and to photograph these lovable mammals. I managed to drag my best friend Sara along to show her this special place and these beautiful animals (I was hoping that would detract from the fact we’d be sitting on a cold beach for hours!) Luckily she was keen to come along so I packed all the warm and waterproof clothing I had and we set off.

Seals are large marine mammals. Their scientific name is Halichoerus grypus which means hook-nosed sea pig, a bit harsh in my view as they are the most adorable and characterful animals.

Spending most of their time at sea feeding, grey seals are most at home along rocky coastline giving them the opportunity to haul out onto rocks and beaches to rest and digest their food. Nearly half the global population of grey seals are found along the British Coast so we are extremely lucky to be able to have the chance to observe these amazing animals.

We travelled to Horsey beach in Norfolk where something very special happens between November and the end of January every year. Large colonies of Grey Seals come ashore to give birth to beautiful white, fluffy pups. These mothers with their new borns stay ashore while the pups grow in size and weight. They eventually shed this soft white fur and reveal a darker, beautifully patterned coat. This is waterproofed, ready for their time at sea.

Image from 2019

We came to the beach before sunrise as the sun rises over the sea and I was hoping for some interesting light, unfortunately the conditions were not as good as I had last year, it was very overcast so light was difficult. Even so, it was such a special moment to be on the beach, just us and the seals. We walked slowly on to the sand, making sure they saw we were there but that we were at a distance that didn’t worry them. We sat by the wall below the sand dunes, made tea from my flask and breathed in the sea air. Most of the seals were at the waters edge resting. Every now and then there would be a reshuffle as individuals moved to a different spot or got more comfortable. The gentle noises that came from them were so comforting.

A few pups were still on the beach, most had already left but a handful of later-born pups lay further up the sand. It is strange to see these youngsters alone, midway up the beach, away from the adults but this is perfectly normal. Mothers know exactly where they are and it is part of their weaning process. I came across one young pup having a good old scratch by one of the groiynes, it was moulting and getting rid of it’s soft pup fur, ready for life in the sea.

I was keen to get a classic portrait of one of these youngsters with a really clear background. This involved a lot of lying on my tummy and using my long lens so I could keep a good distance away and compress the background. This little pup was resting on it's own, I wiggled my way like a worm slowly along the sand so as not to disturb it and got in position. The low angle enabled me to remove distractions from the background.

I lay there for quite some time while this pup slept, hoping that it may lift his head at some point (I'm sure Sara thought I was mad) and then a noise from an adult caught it’s attention and it opened its big beautiful eyes to me. The image transformed once I processed it in black and white, it felt like I was capturing a moment in this young seals life, all the lessons and life at sea lay ahead of it. I was really pleased with this portrait.

Being low on the ground is a great way to capture some interesting images. You feel immersed in their world and the image tends to have more of a connection.

Visiting the seals here is always so rewarding. Even though I had been before I always get excited to see them and the reaction of Sara seeing them for the first time was just magic. However, this trip had a somewhat harrowing feeling. As we approached the beach I was so eager to see what lay ahead, little did I know what I would witness this time around.

One dead pup, then two, then another and an adult and then remains of another pup. I counted about 6 or 7 deceased seals with more probably hidden under the sand. I stopped just by a young dead pup, stones were placed around it to mark where it lay, it still had all it’s white fur, I had a quiet moment to myself, respecting the short life of this youngster and the loss for it’s mother.

The beach at Horsey is closed during high pupping season and members of the public are able to view them from the dunes above but some seals will give birth a bit later and there are some seal pups still on the beach once it is open again for walkers.

It was really upsetting to see these perished seals and I couldn’t quite believe it until it got a bit busier on the beach and I saw what was happening for myself. Families and dog walkers began to appear and the excitement of seeing wild seals was understandable and for some, once in a lifetime. Even though signage in the beach car park advises not to get close to the seals what I saw from members of the public was quite shocking. I saw people bending down to get a ‘selfie’ with young pups, putting their phones in their faces, taking really small children right up to the adult colony and dogs getting too close. Some were walking straight up to the seals causing them to bolt and head for the sea. This is dangerous in itself as young pups who are not yet ready can be forced into the water and can then drown. I noticed some beach wardens trying their best to keep visitors at a distance and Sara and I walked over to talk to them. They told us that it had been a really bad year for pup deaths, with the weather being all over the place the breeding season went on for longer than expected so more pups were still around when the beach was open. If a mother seal sees a human interfering with her pup she may abandon it and the pup will starve.

They told us the reason for leaving the dead animals on the beach and marking them was so that the public could see what is happening, but people weren't making the connection between human interaction and pup deaths, often they would conclude it was due to natural causes. As we were talking to the volunteer wardens a woman walked passed us and up to the seals with her phone, one of the wardens approached her and told her she was too close and needed to step back, her response was “but how am I going to get a good picture?” And that just said it all. We were all shocked and a bit taken back by the comment. Hats off to Sara who automatically asked the woman to show some respect.

In a world where we are so image focussed we can sometimes not think about the consequences of that image. You could argue that we were also contributing to the problem by being on the beach and photographing them. As a wildlife and animal photographer, first and foremost is the welfare of my subject. Learning to photograph wildlife doesn’t just involve camera settings and composition it is primarily about fieldcraft. If you do not respect the animal in front of you and approach it in the correct way you will not have a chance to even get a photograph. Understanding animal behaviour is also key and helps me to recognise when a particular species is relaxed with my presence or not. I would rather miss the shot than actively distress an animal.

Human interaction with any wildlife can be harmful. We are all free to enjoy the natural world and the wildlife within it and we should, but we must always be conscious of our impact and respect wild animals. It is a privilege to be in the company of them not the other way around.

If you are planning a visit, there is some great information and advice on the Friends of Horsey Seals website.

Thanks Sara for putting up with the cold and me laying on the beach for hours! Thanks to the wardens of Horsey and Winterton beach who give their time to protect the seals and do their very best to enable people to enjoy them respectfully.

Thank you for reading.

Image from 2019


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