For a few years I have been trying to plan a trip to see seals in the wild again. My first, and last trip was in December 2012, whilst it was fantastic to see the seals it did not yield many good photography opportunities. On that visit I only got a few images but I was very lucky to have one image published by the BBC for their WinterWatch advertising. I found a seal pup whilst walking along the path in the sand dunes. The seal pup was on the public access side of the rope line and I stayed only for a minute to minimise any disturbance I could cause. The seal pup was very interested in me and my camera and posed fantastically for. Sadly my planned visit to Donna Nook a year later had to be cancelled due to the damage caused by the storm surge. Seals throughout the east coast were badly affected by the storm surge, local wildlife trusts asked people to stay away until the seals settled down and the damage was repaired.
Seal Pup Photography- is it worth it?
Over the next year I researched seal photography and the bad press photographers have got for seal photography. There are many reports of the disturbance photographers can cause and their effect on increasing seal pup mortality. Many wildlife trusts have raised the issue of disturbance to seals during the pupping season from early November to early January. Well known locations such as Donna Nook and Horsey are roped off by the wildlife trusts to reduce disturbance and protect the seals during the pupping season. Although the pup mortality conclusion is debatable I for one won't step beyond the rope, a photograph is not worth disturbing wildlife at such a critical time. Seal pups can be abandoned by their mothers before they are weened if they smell human scent on them, or they can be hurt during a stampede if seal groups are spooky. It is not only photographers who can cause a disturbance, dog walkers, sightseers and runners can all disturb seals unnecessarily. Sadly this summer whilst I took my niece to see seals for the first time I watched a couple pose for photos using a camera phone. They were right next to the seal trying to stroke it whilst oblivious to the danger they were in, seals are surprisingly quick and can be quite aggressive. This is the kind of disturbance photographers get a bad name for and it only takes one photographer to tarnish the reputation of everyone.
The problem with photographing seals from behind the rope is the inability of getting to the same low level as the seals. I find getting low is very important and can make the different from a snapshot to the images I want to capture. For this reason I now won't visit Norfolk during the pupping season as photography from behind the rope won't get me the images i would like to capture. Seals are fantastic mammals and I really want my images to show at their best. Donna Nook does have a metal fence to separate you from the seals and minimise any disturbance caused. Low level photography is possible but much harder, especially when considering the number of visits.
Seal Photography Before Pupping Season
This year I decided to take a trip to Norfolk to photograph adult seals before any seal pups were born. By planning the trip for mid-October ensured there was a lower chance of any pups on the beach and the beach was not yet being roped off so the low perspective could be achieved. Whilst planning a trip to photograph the seals with two friends we had to take into account the weather, wind direction, sunrise time and also high and low tide times. One important aspect to consider is warm clothing as you are on an exposed beach early morning in autumn. Another important aspect is protecting your camera and lens, getting sand into it doesn't bare thinking about. I will soon write a photo-story about photographing seals on the beach.
As Norfolk is on the east coast one of the best times to photograph seals is at sunrise. Light is at its best the couple of hours after sunrise and a couple of hours before sunset. Sunrise does mean getting up early so we stayed nearby the night before. As we drive towards the car park we could see some great sunrise colours starting to appear in the clouds. Thankfully we had already setup the cameras and sand proofed them before we left our accommodation, so it was a walk to the beach beach and find the seals. We quick found a small groups of around 5-6 seals on the beach close to the waters edge. A low slow approach was made by crawling towards them and watching their reaction. Thankfully they were not bothered by our presence and over time we edged closer and closer. We were able to spend a few hours with this group of seals and get some good image opportunities. Some of the images I took can be seen in the slideshow below, whilst not fantastic I'm pleased with them as a first proper attempt at low level seal photography.