A visit to a seal colony is one of the highlights of the British wildlife calendar, and having missed the last couple of years, I wanted to make sure I paid a visit to one this year. Compared to many countries, the UK is pretty tiny, but I still live about as far from the coast as it's possible to get here. So it's not easy to get out and see our coastal wildlife very often, especially for sunrise. But it's well worth doing so, both as a photographer and as a keen observer of nature.
Those wide eyes, and pure white fur are an irresistible combination, even for an old cynic like me. Even more irresistible to my eye is the opportunity to use back-lighting like this.
Though the sun had already been up an hour or so, I was really lucky with the amazing light filtering through the cloud and sea mist to keep it softer than it otherwise would have been by this time.
In reality, the light was not this glorious to the eye, but I knew the camera would emphasise it when shooting towards the sun like this. It's a tricky exposure to get right, and I initially thought I'd blown out the highlights, but I got home to discover I'd been saved by the subtlety of the raw file, compared to the jpeg on the back of the camera.
Turning my back to the sun, this next shot looks like another day altogether, but they were taken minutes apart.
You can still sense that this was a nice pastel-coloured morning, but the atmosphere is a world away from the previous three photos. And intentionally so, as I wanted a variety of styles.
It's a curious thing about cameras though; In 'good' light, such as this morning, they'll make the scene look better than it does to the eye. On other days, you could shoot the same subject and viewpoint, and it would look much flatter and uninspiring than it did to the eye. As a photographer, it's key to recognise what sort of lighting conditions I'm in, and react accordingly. Shoot more, shoot less, change lenses and approach from a different angle, or go home and have a hot chocolate. But hopefully always enjoy what I'm seeing, photo or no photo.
Speaking of enjoying, do you ever get the feeling your subject isn't taking you seriously?
In reality, this pup was yawning as it drifted off to sleep. But I can't help thinking it's a bit of a ROFL situation.
Here's another one of this playful pup, which I kind of like in black and white.
Lastly, the high-key approach, which I like...
Here's the serious bit: If you're going to go and see a seal colony, which I highly recommend you do, please exercise some common sense and respect for the wildlife you're going to see. Don't crowd around an individual, and don't get too close to any seal. Mothers will abandon their pups if they're concerned for their own safety, or if they pick up a human scent on their pup. The adults can also be very bad-tempered and aggressive when they want to be, and they carry a horrible bacteria in their mouth - not to mention a strong and pointy jaw.
Last week a pup drowned after being herded into the sea by some children (whose mother watched on, oblivious), another died after being abandoned by its mother due to proximity to people, and another died after being mauled by not one but two dogs. Who even takes dogs onto a beach inhabited by thousands of baby seals? The reality is that these spectacles and experiences simply won't remain accessible to others in future years if we don't act responsibly. But that's no reason not to go and enjoy them. They're like nothing else we have here. Just keep your distance, and enjoy the experience of sharing time and space with these charismatic creatures. These photos were all taken at a respectful distance with a long lens.
This was the classic 'beach master'; a large bull policing his stretch of beach and removing other males from the area by intimidation or by force. His aim is to maintain as large a territory as possible and in doing so, mate with the females therein. They're big brutes, and you wouldn't want to get caught in their way. They average 2.5 metres long, and around 230kg (which is almost 4 of me!). Laying on the beach taking these photos, I'm constantly looking around to make sure there are no seals heading in my direction. They can move quickly when they want to.
This last photo is another male, sleeping out the morning, and sheltering his eyes from the sandstorm blowing low over the beach.
Enjoy These Sights For Yourself
I would encourage anyone in the UK to try and visit a seal colony at least once. There's nothing else quite like it here, since we persecuted all our other large mammals into extinction several centuries ago. Fortunately seals had other options, location-wise, but they're now flooding back and increasing in number year on year, which is great. Norfolk and Lincolnshire host the most popular seal colonies, but they can also be found elsewhere from Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland, right down to Essex and the Thames estuary. Pupping times vary around the country, but on the east coast, they haul out to pup in late autumn and hang around until the new year. During that time there can be in excess of a thousand pups born, which means similar numbers of adult males and females. They can also be seen in the surf or on the beach in fewer numbers the rest of the year too.