How to take brilliant pictures of seals
Words by Steward Ellett
Like humans, animals are creatures of habit. Nowhere is this habitual behaviour more evident than on the north-east coast of England during the late part of each year. From November until the end of January Donna Nook in Lincolnshire comes alive with hundreds of grey seals. It is here that these mammals mass together to give birth to the next generation.
Five days a week this area is used by the RAF as a training bombing range. The seals are totally unaffected by this activity. In fact many say it is because this is a bombing range that the seals are protected and for most part left alone.
However, during the ‘birthing season’ this little part of the east coast becomes a Mecca for wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and the curious. All come to see a truly magical sight where, if you’re lucky, seal pups are being born only a few feet away. At the very least you see seal pups only hours old crying and calling for the comfort of their mothers. If you plan your trip well and get some luck, you can come away with some amazing photos and some close-up experiences you won’t forget.
To get the most from a trip to Donna Nook I suggest you take a whole weekend because weather can be an issue. If you intend to venture out to the shoreline, try to pick a weekend when the tides are favourable. I arrive Friday lunchtime and spend the afternoon close to the marked public path and perimeter fence getting photos of the females, big male bulls and, of course, the pups.
As the range is still used on the Friday you can’t venture out to where the waves are. There is still plenty to photograph though. In fact, some photographers are happy to stay along the path all the time, because a high percentage of mothers and pups stay in the dunes for safety. Your only restriction is the three-foot high fence, which stops you getting any really low-angle shots.
Of course, a long lens is beneficial, but not essential. A zoom up to 300mm is ample. I only ever take a 300mm prime lens and a 1.4x converter, alongside a 70-200mm. A tripod or monopod is indispensable, but in good light,
I like to handhold.
Saturday morning is a very early start. I get to the small car park at least an hour before first light to pull on warm clothing and waterproofs. Make sure your camera bag is covered and that you have something to put down on the sand to protect your bag. A small torch is also helpful. When kitted out I make the 15-20 minute walk out across the wet sand, only stopping when I get near to the waves. I like to get there just before the sun is bringing the first light onto the sand.
When the conditions are right, you get wonderful light. It doesn’t last long, so make sure you are set up and ready to shoot. I carry my gear in a pack until I get about 200 yards from the seals. It’s then I put my camera gear together. Doing this away from the seals prevents unnecessary disruption. Put extra batteries, converters and memory cards in zipped pockets so you don’t have to keep opening the camera bag, this also helps to keep the sand out. Remember even on a nice day you will get wet and covered in sand.
The area you can work here is very wide. The seals can be scattered along at least a mile of coast. You can find lone adult seals, mothers with a pup, and even feuding bulls in the surf. There is plenty to photograph.
The seals can be skittish, but if you keep low and approach very slowly you can get close enough with a 300mm to get full-frame shots. If the seal gets agitated move back until it settles down or move away. Remember that these are wild animals and the mothers can be quite protective.
Never get between a mother and her pup. If you do, this could cause a mother to be scared off and leave her pup, which, in extreme cases, could result in a pup being abandoned. No shot is worth that.
Walk behind any seals you are passing wherever possible. Give them as much space as they need. If a seal is moving towards the sea, move and allow it to continue without having to go around you.
Most photographers are responsible, but if you see a large group around one seal, don’t add to it. Move away; there is always something else to shoot.
The area out by the waves is totally flat so you can easily forget to check the background, but do so at your peril. You can see a cute pup with great light and forget there is half a bull seal in the background, or more likely a fellow photographer’s rear end, spoiling the whole image. Waves against the seals can also be a problem as they can cause some dramatic contrasts. Try a narrow depth-of-field, it can give the sand a nice out-of-focus effect. Like everywhere you can suffer from low light, but one advantage is that once settled the seals tend to stay quite still.
Also consider wider shots showing the landscape and waves. You are only limited by your imagination.
After a few hours or if the weather is bad, I return to my car, get warm and have a coffee. Refreshed I either go back out to the seals or stay along the path for more photo opportunities. And on Sunday, repeat the whole, fun day.
Donna Nook is a wonderful place to see grey seals, but it can also be very harsh if the weather takes a turn for the worse. Always dress for the worst if you are walking out to the low tide area. Even though it may be mild in the car park it can be bitterly cold and wet far out. Waterproofs and wellingtons are a must.
You will spend a lot of time kneeling or lying down so you need protection. As do your cameras. Cover your camera bag inside and out. I wrap any camera gear inside the bag in smaller bags to protect it when I open the main bag. I also keep a small towel handy to wipe my sandy hands.
The Donna Nook reserve covers more than 10km of coastline between Grainthorpe Haven in the north and Saltfleet in the south where it borders the Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe reserve. There are several access points off the A1031 coastal road. There are parking facilities at: Stonebridge (grid ref: TF 422 998), Howden's Pullover (TF 449 952), Sea Lane, Saltfleet (TF 456 944) and Saltfleet Haven (TF 467 935). Public access is also possible at Merrikin's Pullover (TF 445 958), but there is no parking. Access at Howden's Pullover, Saltfleet Haven and Merrikin's Pullover is down unmetalled roads.
Please be aware that the Ministry of Defence still maintains part of the area as a bombing target range and under no circumstances should you enter the bombing area when red flags are flying. However, most of the dune area is accessible at all times.
I would strongly suggest that you do not go out to the tide alone, just in case you experience any difficulties, although there are generally other photographers close by. You can check out the tide times at bbc.co.uk/weather/coast/tides/ or easytide.ukho.gov.uk
If Donna Nook is too far away for you, check out other grey seal haunts in Berwickshire, Fife, Pembrokeshire and the Orkney Isles at: jncc.gov.uk
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