Norfolk Grey Seals

There is something about Grey Seals, they are a remarkable mammal who endure everything nature can throw at it.  The East coast of England attracts huge numbers of seals every pupping season from November to December.  Two of the main places are Donna Nook in Lincolnshire and Horsey in Norfolk.  

Grey Seal PupGrey Seal PupGrey Seal Pup, Horsey beach, Norfolk.

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It was Horsey in Norfolk that I first visited to see the Grey Seal pups.  Seal pups are one of the cutest mammals you will ever see, its not surprising why so many people love them.  It was during this visit in December 2012 I took my first ever published image.  It was the seal pup image you can see here on the right that the BBC published as part of their advertising for 2012's BBC WinterWatch.  Although that day photography opportunities were very limited (this was the only opportunity I got to take a nice image) it was great to spend time watching the seals and get an small insight into their world.  

I wanted to get back as soon as possible and go onto the beach to get a low perspective.  During the pupping season the local wildlife trust and Friends of Horsey Seals rope off the beach to stop people disturbing the seals at such a critical time of year.  Sadly this has to be done due to some photographers and other visitors getting too close and disturbing the young pups.  Unfortunately I was unable to go again that year and had to wait until the following pupping season until I could plan to visit the seals again.  The following year (December 2013) I planned a first visit to Donna Nook to photograph the seals from the viewing area.  Sadly the week before a storm surge devastated the East of England coastline.  The seals at both Horsey and Donna Nook were badly affected.  At Donna Nook volunteers worked throughout the night trying to remove the metal fences that were supposed to protect the seals from humans.  The fences were stopping the seals and their pups from reaching the safety of the sand dunes beyond the fence line.  In the days and weeks after the storm surge Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust asked visits to stay away, the seals were now dispersed across a wide area with many pups split from their mothers and sadly some pups that did not make it through the storm surge.  As the health of wildlife is far more important I stayed away from Donna Nook and Horsey.  It was not until nearly two years after my first visit that I was able to plan another visit to see the seals again.  

Fast Forward to October 2014- Finally a visit to Horsey Seals again! 

Having had two years to prepare I finally visited Horsey again.  My favourite image of the day was the image below, it was the kind of image I had planned to take for the last two years.


To get this image a lot of planning and research went into it, below I will explain further what it took.

Being Prepared

IMG_0290IMG_0290 Protecting your camera and lens is very important, on a beach water and sand is everywhere!  Salt water doesn't do your camera much good, salt spray can easily be whipped up off the sea by the wind.  Sand can also get into your camera and lens through  small cracks.  My camera and lens is supposed to be weather sealed but I never trust the weather sealing alone in an environment like this.  I looked at many different options but what I wanted to do was to fully seal the camera and lens so sand and water could not get in.  The best and cheapest option I found was using OpTech Rain Sleeves (purchased from Amazon here) to cover the camera and lens completely.  They have a draw string closer for the hood (which I removed) and a small hole for the view finder to go through.  I used electrical tape to tape around any holes in the OpTech Rain Sleeve.  I taped around the end of the lens close to where the lens hood it fitted.  If you have a removable lens hood on a lens like a 300mm f2.8, 200-400mm f4, 500mm f4 etc then don't tape the rain sleeve only on the lens hood.  There is a small gap on the inside of the lens hood when its attached, thankfully this was noticed this before going on the beach.  I had to cut a small hole for the tripod foot to fit through so this had to taped up like the viewfinder and the other open end of the rain sleeve to fully seal it.   I had used red electrical tape as I was going to put a LensCoat Rain Cover over the top as a secondary protection layer.  Had I not used the LensCoat I would have probably used black tape so it did not stand out.  

One important thing to mention here is once your camera and lens it fully enclosed and sealed you don't want to be breaking the sealing when you are out on the beach. This means you have to make sure your battery is fully charged and you have enough memory card storage space.  I use a gripped camera so I had two fully charged batteries and two memory cards (one 64GB card and one 32GB card) set to overflow (breaking my normal backup rule on this occasion).  This meant I had space for around 1600 images and more than enough battery power for the day planned.

Getting that Low Perspective

One thing that I think is important is getting to an animals eye level, its make so much difference to an image.  With seals that means crawling through the sand for several hours at a time.  Wildlife photography usually means you are going to be using a long telephoto lens so you don't have to get so close to your subject.  Seals are no difference, you really don't want to get too close as they can move much faster than you can across sand.  Seals are low to  the sand so your lens needs to only a few inches off the ground.  Tripods are difficult to use on a sandy beach and its hard to move with a tripod.  Sand and salt also gets in the legs and mechanisms so you have to spend time afterwards to properly clean them or they may corrode.  

Myself and one of my friends deployed different approaches but in someways they were similar.  My approach was to use a homemade GroundPod, a frying pan with a gimbal head attached.  My friend used a baking tray with a beanbag inside it.  To make the flying pan GroundPod I bought a cheap aluminium frying pan and I took off the handle.  I drilled a clearance hole through the centre of the frying pan to allow a 3/8 inch bolt (16 thread per inch, UNC) to attached the gimbal head securely to the frying pan.  The gimbal head allowed smooth panning (don't forget to loosen the tripod collar to allow levelling of the horizon) whilst the frying pan base glided over the sand.  Both approaches gave a sturdy support base that helped support the camera/lens whilst crawling through the sand.


From previous trips trying to capture wading birds I have learnt the hard way that going light helps.  This means no camera bags, just take what you need either in your pockets or in a small camera waist bag.  I use a Tamrac 56 hip pack, its the perfect size to carry a teleconverter (not on this occasion), rocket blower, lens cloth, my car keys, phone etc along with a few cereal bars to keep me going until lunch.  
Plan when to visit
A trip to photograph seals takes a bit of preplanning.  With wildlife its not just a case of rocking up and getting great images, there is so much that goes into planning a trip.  First of all you need to know what the best time of year to visit is. The Grey Seal pupping season is from the start of November through to early January.  During this time access to the beach is restricted to reduce disturbance to the seal pups.  For this reason I planned to visit in mid-October before the beach was closed.  Knowing the sunrise time is critical too, the worst thing is watching a fantastic sunrise from the car as you travel to your location.  I use the JeKoPhoto Sunrise Calculator as its has always been very accurate and gives you additional information like twilight times too.  Checking the weather is helpful as you can look to visit at the best possible opportunity to hopefully get the perfect light.  The BBC Weather and The Met Office forecasts are very good for this although they are not always as accurate as I would like them to be.  Knowing the time of the high and low tides can also be very useful, at places like Donna Nook its extremely important as the tide comes in very fast behind you there. I use tidetimes for this information. Knowing when the tide turns can be the difference between staying dry or getting very wet, its very easy to be concentrating on your photography and not seeing the approaching tide.  Knowing where the seals are likely to be situated and where you are going to park your vehicle it important if you are on a sunrise deadline.  Thankfully Horsey has a car park close to beach so this is not a problem.  Its important to properly map your route and the traveling time as the sun doesn't wait for you to get there.  Google maps and AA route planner are great aids for this. Horsey is 2hrs 30 mins away for me so we planned to stay nearby to cut the morning travel time and reduce the risk of us getting caught in traffic.  
Getting Close 
With wild animals you just can't walk straight up to them and expect them to pose perfectly for you.  You have to approach them in a way that allows them to accept you into their environment, after all you are the visitor not them.  Approach slowly and low from a distance whilst watching them for any signs of stress or disturbance.  If you notice anything STOP..... wait until they have calmed before moving again otherwise they may bolt into the safety of the sea.  Don't approach directly towards your chosen subject, always approach at an angle.  Keep low so your profile doesn't break the horizon as it will make you less noticeable.  Keep an eye out around you, seals are quite inquisitive and can easily approach you from behind without you noticing.  Photographing in a small group can help here as more eyes can notice any danger faster than if you were on your own.  One other thing to look out for is seal poo!  Imagine dog poo but with the smell of fish, if you are unlucky to lay in it you will smell it for the rest of the day.  Either wear over trousers when crawling on the beach or take a spare pair with you.  Being stuck in a car for few hours on the way home with this smell wouldn't be pleasant.  One last thing is to look up from the cameras viewfinder at least once and watch these mammals rather than see everything from the viewfinder.
Finally here is a slideshow of the images I took during this trip to Horsey.