It’s that time of year again – as you put away the summer clothes, turn up the thermostat and start thinking about when you should start thinking about what to get your relatives for Christmas, the grey seals reappear on the shores of Donna Nook NNR on the Lincolnshire coastline to spend the next 8 weeks ashore, laying pups, fighting and having the occasional bout of less-than-gentle sex. This phenomenon is a rather new one for this beach – what has been an RAF base for nearly 90 years now was only recently invaded by the local population of grey seals – apart from the occasional bomb flying past, the lack of human encroachment made it prime real estate for one trend-setting seal and year after year the seal population has skyrocketed (though not literally) as female seals come onto the beach to lay their pups and the males come in for a bit of sexual healing. The pupping numbers are on a yearly increase, even last year (apparently) despite the flooding. This year the first seal cow arrived on the 25th of October, and their numbers had started decreasing the week I was there (around the 10th of Dec) as the pups and mothers started making their way back for a much-needed shower.
The problem for wildlife photographers is that the main site has (thanks to a few troublemaking individuals) now been fenced off, so if you like getting down low with the little ‘uns, you’ll struggle. Thanks to a tip-off from some friends, we got around this problem (in a legitimate way, nothing dodgy happening here… photographically speaking). The only issue with going at the height of pupping season is that you’ll most likely not get very far on the beach and your movements will be restricted either by the abandoned pups gathering together at the top of the beach (you’ll either get a territorial hiss or an interested individual approach and eat your tripod), mothers glancing, hissing and approaching you as they protect their pups, or even bulls that feel threatened by your proximity (how could I measure up to a 1-tonne mass of blubber?). It’s like running the gauntlet. Or more like, unable to. As normal I tried something ‘different’. Let me know what you think – and read on to discover the 3 questions that plagued us the most during our photo session.
I’ve just spent hours rolling around in the sand, getting down low for that perfect photograph, and when you get up you find yourself covered in poo. Surely they don’t walk dogs here – who’s poo is this?
It’s the seals, apparently! Cetaceans all need to excrete what they consume, just like us, and it is a vital part of the circle of life in the oceans. Literally. Get this: krill eat phytoplankton, and concentrate iron in their tissues. Baleen whales eat krill. When whales poo, they release large amounts of iron into the ocean, which in phytoplankton need to grow. And as a result of commercial whaling (thanks scandinavia and Japan!) phytoplankton numbers have dropped, which in turn has reduced the carbon-sequestering properties of our oceans. Lovely jubbly.
Whereas whales’ poo can come out as almost liquid (in a plume-like cloud) as well as in chunks, seal poo is usually turd-esque, much like humans, and is light enough to float. Seal poo tends to get consumed by benthic invertebrates who produce spawn that enrich zooplankton. They even apparently distribute their turds in a pattern that can be easily handled by the ecosystem – how very considerate!
That is some mighty fresh stink that seal just breathed into my face. What’s up with that?
Seals don’t have a very good sense of smell so they can probably get away with stinking up the beach because it is highly likely they can’t detect their own stench (though, let’s be honest, they wouldn’t be rushing for the deodorant anyway). When in the sea seals hardly use their noses – when they dive they close their nostrils so as to prevent seawater from irritating the delicate membranes in the nose. But those membranes are delicate and their nose bones are fairly complex suggesting that they are used.
On land, each seal has its own individual smell. Seals sometimes raise their head in that typical horseshoe shape because they’re actually smelling the air. This means that mothers can rely on olfactory cues as well as sound cues to locate her pup. Mothers will defend their territories and fight off males by open mouth displays, hisses and vocalisations – and finally I think I read on a sign at Donna Nook that the fouler the smell of the male the more dominant it may make him against other males as well? (don’t quote me on that).
And by being capital breeders (meaning they fast while on land) pups feasting exclusively on high-fat breast milk and adults on their own blubber, their intestines must be have a might nice time producing an overkill stench.
It seems that a fine specimen of a grey seal bull is one that can make the largest sand vibrations with its fat banging on the sand and has an exceptionally ripe breath. Sign me up for one of those on tinder! 
Every morning at 9am, a red tractor makes its way across the beach through the seals from left to right – but it doesn’t seem to go towards any of the RAF targets. Seriously the best commute to work – where do I apply for one of those?
We put this question to one of the wardens – this one seems to behave differently to the yellow one in the afternoon which you can see in the distance moving the targets around. It’s still used as a NATO air weapons range and you can hear the typhoons and tornados flying over from nearby RAF bases as well. But all she could tell us was that she didn’t know and just guessed it had something to do with the RAF. No more luck online either. If anyone knows the answer to this mysterious tractor – please let us know so we can stop torturing ourselves to find the answer.