The grey seal, Halichoerus grypus, is one of the true seals found in the northern§ Atlantic. The males, also known as bulls, can get around 3m and can weigh up to 300kg, and the females, known as cows, are typically 1.8m and up to 190kg. Similar in appearance to the harbour seal, it is distinguished by the shape of its head, which tends to be straighter with a larger nose. In the British Isles they are frequently found at Donna Nook (Lincolnshire), the Farne Islands (Northumberland), Orkney island, Lambay Island (Dublin) and Ramsey Island (Pembrokeshire). On the other side of the Atlantic, the biggest colonies are in Canada, with the largest colony in the world on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. In contrast to many mammals nowadays, grey seal populations are on the rise, with some fishermen calling for a cull to protect their stock; since 2011 hunting them has become legalised in Sweden and Finland. Pups are born in the late-autumn/winter months and have a thick white fur coat. The remains of the placenta is still pink until about 4 days, after which it will turn black and after a week it will fall off. At about 3 weeks they will start shedding this white fur and, having fattened up fully, will head out to sea. They reach sexual maturity around 3 years of age.
The Donna Nook National Nature Reserve, on the Lincolnshire coast about 20km south of Grimsby, is an area of sand dunes, slacks and inter-tidal areas. The raised sand bars provide an excellent breeding habitat for grey and harbour (or common) seals, as well as being home to one of the few breeding colonies of little tern in the UK, a feature of late summer. Other birds (around 47 species breed here regularly with over 250 visiting species having been recorded) attracted to the area are dunlins, short-eared owls and Lapland bunting – for more information see the Donna Nook NNR website.
The area is also used by the Ministry of Defence for RAF target practice, though this has not changed the behaviour of the seals, nor have there been any accidents to date. A larger impact on the seals is the rise in visitors during pupping season, the stress of which has caused pup deaths in the past. To prevent this, there is now a double fence between the beach and the visitor path which has over the past two years become more tightly meshed.
The distance between the sea and where the pups lay is quite large, which caused 75 seal pup death last December when a series of high tides separated them from their mothers. On average, 1,300 seal pups are born here annually between late O
Photographing the grey seals
As mentioned above, the distance between the sea and the front of the sand dunes is great, so there are lots of telephoto opportunities, but at the same time a lot of pups lie up against the metal mesh so you can easily get by with some wide-angle shots as well.
The biggest deterrent to getting the shots photographers would like is the request that people stay off the sand dunes, along with the fences that have been put up. As there is a gap between the wooden fence and metal mesh fence you could crouch in this space to get down low. The holes in the mesh are quite big, and you could stick a thin lens through it, but beware because the pups have an attitude and are not afraid to hiss and snap at an object they dislike.
The visitor path is only 1km or so, and the landscape is fairly similar all the way through. There is, however, lots of interesting behaviour to look out for – the bulls will frequently display aggression to defend their harem and try to mate with new females, the mothers are very protective of their pups and you can get some clear shots of pups feeding, as well as the pups being extremely photogenic, posing in adorable positions with heart-warming facial ‘expressions’.
The light comes from behind the sea, so I would recommend trying to get there on a clear day for sunrise (I haven’t tried this yet). Once the sun is behind you in the afternoon you have to struggle with your shadows. Also make sure you go at low tide – this gives you the best chance to see lots of seals on the beach, therefore lots of photo opportunities.
The classic seal pup shot seems to be low, shallow depth of field with some blue sky in the back. I would also recommend looking at unique bits of detail which can easily be done using a standard lens as the pups are close enough.
Finally, because you are at a sand dune, be careful for… sand! It gets everywhere and if not properly taken care of can ruin your camera.
One of the main cameramen filming grey seals out of the Farne Islands is Ben Burville, aka seal diver. He has spent many many hours with these magical creatures underwater, so if you would like to see just how intelligent these animals are, have a look at this video he made: