Photographing the grey seals at Donna Nook is the most physically taxing thing I have ever done in my life, more so than withstanding the searing heat of Bandhavgarh. However, I wasn’t to know this until we trekked across the broads at 6.30am on a Sunday morning.
It was wet and windy and the tide was still very high, the highest recorded so far – 7 metres instead of the usual 5 metres. This unusually high tide proved to be devastating for many young seal pups whose mother had been unable to get to the maternity area before giving birth. Contrary to popular belief, seal pups aren’t able to swim from birth. In fact, it takes them 4 or 5 days before they can do so. For those females who give birth in the maternity area, the high tide is not a problem. However, for those mothers who do not make it to this area because they are too young to know any better or are too lazy, or in some cases, end up going into premature labour, giving birth away from the maternity area means they risk the lives of their pups in those crucial first days. In the event of high tide, these pups are simply swept away and drown.
We eventually got the go ahead to proceed towards the sand flats. The trek down was challenging. It was at least a mile of walking through water that constantly threatened to go over the top of our boots, putting one foot in front of the other was also tough on account of the sand and mud not wanting to let go of our boots! Falling over whilst carrying expensive camera gear was not an option. Once we lost sight of the shore, it was very disorientating with the silence adding to the eeriness.
If you are photographing seals, especially during pupping season, I can’t stress enough that common sense must be applied. These gentle giants are relatively relaxed but if a bull or mother decides that you are a danger to them, one of two things will happen. Best case scenario is that they will simply leave and head towards the sea; worst case, the bull will charge you and believe you me, they can be pretty fast on land!
When photographing wild animals, patience is key. If you wait long enough, your subject will come to you because they will be curious to know what you are and what you are doing. This is fantastic, especially if you can’t afford to buy a great big lens. Incidentally, all of these images were taken using just my Canon 100-400mm lens. Now, if you happen to be lying low on the ground and at eye-level with your subject, your shots will be so much better than if you were pointing your camera down at them.
Having said this, lying low on the sand flats at Donna Nook needs to be done with care. The wind is likely to blow sand into your lens hood and if you are too close to the water, your camera (and you) are likely to get wet! I had thought about buying an expensive cover for my camera and lens but discovered that a plastic M&S bag with a hole cut at one end to allow my lens to poke through, secured to the lens hood with packing tape actually worked quite well. It also meant that at the end of the day, I could simply dispose of the plastic bag without having to clean it.
We spent the whole day down at the sand flats and during that time, we experienced almost every type of weather possible from sun and rain to hail and sand storm. So if you ever plan to visit Donna Nook, I cannot recommend enough that you are properly equipped with wind and waterproof jacket and trousers. If you get wet, I can guarantee that you will be miserable for the rest of the time you are there!
The reason for visiting Donna Nook in November was because we were hoping to be able to photograph some seal pups but also, to try and capture shots of the older seals playing and flirting.
The window in order to capture the flirting and mating shots is small and you really need to be lucky with the weather and the tide. Fortunately, for us, we were extremely lucky. I think it also helped because we were respectful of the seals and did not try to approach them, that they stuck around and went about their business as if we weren’t there.
Some of seals were extremely obliging and appeared to pose just for us!
I loved how they would raise their tail as if in imitation of a shrimp.
At times, some of the bull seals exhibited almost human-like gestures like hiding their face behind their flipper or in this case, raising said flipper in a high five action.
It was a very long and exhausting day. The ever changing weather combined with that strong north wind making photography, at times, extremely difficult. By the time we decided we had had enough, we had probably walked an additional half a mile or so. The long walk back to the car park was a bit of a blur as I was so very tired from crawling along the sand, kneeling/sitting in the sea and fighting the elements.
For those of who you are inspired by my blog or my photos to go visit Donna Nook, here is a checklist based on my own personal experience:-
- If you plan on making a dawn trip to the seal sanctuary, please do check that the hotel you are booked into will actually provide you with breakfast OR make sure you provision yourselves the night before. Whilst there is a food van at the site, they are not open before 7.30am. Certainly by the time we headed out to the broads, they were still closed.
- Depending on how long you intend to stay out, you might want to consider taking food and drink with you as it is a very long walk back to the food van. Please remember to take your rubbish home with you!
- Wellington boots are a must. Waterproof shoes or boots are not submersible proof and your feet will get wet very quickly walking through water.
- Dress up warmly. Wearing layers is good as you can remove items of clothing as you get hot but make sure your top layer is water proof. The wind is unforgiving and if you aren’t wrapped up warmly, your visit will be very uncomfortable and extremely brief.
- Pick one lens that you will use for the duration. Changing lens whilst out at sea is not advisable due to the risk sand or sea salt or anything else getting in between your camera body and the lens whilst changing. Not only will this ruin your photos but it will be a real pain to clean out afterwards.
- Protect your camera. We found that putting our camera with lens fully extended into a plastic bag, cutting a hole to allow the lens to peep through and using brown tape to secure the edges of the bag to the lens, before fitting the lens hood worked well.
- Tripod and bean bag will help steady the camera when it is windy but do bear in mind they will get sandy and wet so wrap them up in plastic bags. Alternatively, we found that a milk crate worked well as a substitute tripod with our bean bag taped into a plastic bag to provide additional support.
- Keep a change of clothes and a towel handy in the car for when you return – you’re going to need them!
2014 update: Since writing this blog post, it is now highly recommended that you do not go down to the sand flats. This is because in recents years there have been a few irresponsible photographers who, in their bid to get images of cute seal pups, have caused mothers to abandon their babies which is catastrophic since these pups then die as they cannot survive without their mothers.