The UKs largest mammals make great subjects but are photographers getting too close?
The UK is home to nearly 40% of the world’s Grey Seal population and during the winter grey seals breed and have their young ,in their thousand’s, on our beaches. They are our largest mammals and they make great photographic subjects.
Where to see Grey Seals
Grey Seals can be found around our coasts from the very South of England, to the Scottish Islands. The first British pups are born on the Scillies and Cornwall in August and September and the time of pupping gets progressively later as you move clockwise around the British Isles. The latest pups are born off the east coast of Scotland and the Farne Islands, in late December. Donna Nook in Lincolnshire is one renowned spot. I chose to head to another, Horsey Gap in Norfolk.
Keep your distance
Seal pups are incredibly cute and I can understand people wanting to get close to them, but by doing so the pup could easily be abandoned by its mother and starve to death. It’s important not to get between a pup and the sea, as its mother may be wanting to return from the water to feed it. I used a Canon 100-400 lens, at full extension most of the time, to keep at a maximum distance.
Do not disturb
By keeping a safe distance away from the seals you won’t interrupt their natural behaviour patterns. It’s great to see the females feeding their young and competing for mates but most of the time on the beach is devoted to dozing. Seals are the most lazy and relaxed looking creatures I’ve seen. When napping, they look like they’re smiling.
So as not to disturb them, I found it best to keep low and to walk slowly. Then I choose a spot, sat down and stayed put. That way I was a smaller threat and because I wasn't moving around, they didn’t need to keep an eye on me, so they could carry on doing what they were doing, most often…dozing.
It may be tempting to move spots but if you stay put, different seals will move themselves into range and by keeping your focus on a single individual, you won’t miss the moment the light improves, or they start dancing!
They may seem lumbering or slow but you’ll need to keep an eye on them. Don’t forget about other seals when you’re watching one closely. I found that if I wasn’t paying attention the fatter pups actually tried to sneak towards me (I think they’re a bit short-sighted). Aggressive males chasing females an move surprisingly fast too, so staying observant is important.
When a seal feels threatened it will often wave a flipper, it’s another sign to look out for when gauging distance.
Get a low angle
I preferred the shots where I kept my camera low, near to the sand – it gives a seal’s eye view and a nice blurred foreground. Wonky horizons spoil shots, so check regularly. Even if the ground is sloping, the sea should be horizontal.
Gear to take to the beach
As well as a long lens, I wished I’d taken waterproof trousers with me. The sand was cold after a while. Luckily I did remember to take a pair of fishing gloves along. They’re great as they allow you to have your fingertips free whilst keeping your hands warm in the coastal winds. On the beach sand gets blown around and it gets everywhere, so a waterproof cover for your lens and camera are a must.
It’s not just camera gear that sand chooses to try it’s luck with. This male reminded me of a fat sunbather with sand in his suncream.
Restrictions at Horsey Gap
At Horsey Gap a team of volunteers watch over the colony and intervene when necessary to rescue abandoned pups. During the breeding season the beach is closed, with roped off viewing areas for the public in the sand dunes overlooking the beach. Whilst as a photographer this is disappointing, I think it’s vital that there are safe areas for the seals where they aren’t disturbed by dogs or people.
After heading a little down the coast to Winterton and taking care to stay a safe distance away myself, I was astounded to see a young family walking right up to young seals to take family portraits (His face has been obscured).
Human scent could prevent the adult from returning to the pup. Seals are also susceptible to viruses and diseases that we carry. What's more, we can catch diseases from them – they have a nasty bite. (I’m sure if the guy in my photo saw this angry male he wouldn’t be putting his kids so close.)
Either get set up for the ‘golden hour’ just after dawn or before dusk, or pray for nice light.