Photographing wintry seals

It was the end of the seal pupping season. Probably the last week where you could still be sure to find seals hauled-out on the sandbank. A severe winter storm was forecast, so I was likely to be almost entirely alone and any shots from the day would be unique. By now, the seal pups had been weened and already left the protected shore of Donna Nook. And with them, the hoards of photographers had also vanished.

As part of my preparations, I had been tracking both the weather forecast and the low-tide times. On this day, the tide would be out from 9am, giving me almost all the daylight hours out on the sandbank, without the fear of being stranded. I was looking for bad weather, not a beautiful sunrise, so the later start was a nice bonus – it’s a four-hour drive to the National Nature Reserve from my home.

On arrival, the dashboard thermometer displayed a bone-chilling -3℃. With the 40mph+ north-easterly gale, the windchill was -13℃! Ouch! As soon as I stepped out from the lovely warm car, I knew this was going to be a rough session. The car park of Donna Nook is largely sheltered by the dunes, but I was being battered even here. Once I had passed the dunes, the frozen sand blasted my face and raked my eye balls.

My preparations prevailed with my polar-standard clothing withstanding the elements. As predicted, the place was deserted, desolate and grim. Perfect. It took sometime to get out to the sand bank, avoiding the pools of quicksand, while shouldering the camera bag and tripod. I always aim for the bombing targets that the RAF use.

“If you’re planning on photographing anything on a sandbank or exposed shore, ALWAYS consult the tide-table charts. ALWAYS take a fully charged phone. ALWAYS be prepared with appropriate clothing. ALWAYS pack a whistle to attract attention if you’re in difficulty. ALWAYS let people know where you’re going – ideally travel with another person.”

The seals haul-out further along the shore, so I can make the approach from downwind with extreme caution, so as not to panic them. The target scaffolds also give me a landmark to head for and something secure to strap my bag too. For this trip, there was only the 600mm f/4, tucked snugly in my LowePro LensTrekker. I unpacked the camera and lens, already covered with Wildlife Watching Supplies® neoprene covers and additional ‘four seasons’ storm jacket. This is not a friendly environment to set-up and change lenses. You arrive ready to rock.

Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Donna Nook, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₆₄₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

Approaching seals on land should be a slow and methodical process. Unfortunately, something many photographers fail to grasp – standing their, shrugging their shoulders wondering why the seals have all rushed to the water. I always keep very low to the ground, never standing up. I just crawl along on all fours, dragging my 600mm lens behind me on a fully-splayed tripod.

I tape up the legs to stop the sand getting in the locking threads and I also tape-on a plastic dish to each tripod foot – so they act as skis and slide on the sand – some photogs prefer a double beanbag on a tray. Even with the adaptation, I only move a few metres at a time, staggering my approach, pausing to watch for raised heads within the haul-out.

Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Donna Nook, England with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 400

The wind was blasting sand across my view, from the sea towards land. The seals would not be able to see more than me, but they do have an exceptional sense of smell. I figured that with this wind, the seals were rendered blind and would therefore be easily agitated, so I kept the approach nice and slow. The lens was on the deck as I always photograph animals at eye-level or below for the most intimate view. For a little more comfort, I had fitted an angle-finder to save my neck with this low angle, but this was now frozen solid.

Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Donna Nook, England with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

After an hour, I was finally in a great position beside a shallow tidal pool. It had started to snow heavily and the situation was rapidly deteriorating. Heavy snow became a raging blizzard and my whole rig was concreted by frozen sand and ice. I cleared out the lens hood, but almost instantly I felt icy bullets of hale. I’ve stood on the Ross Ice Shelf just 200km for the South Pole and this was more extreme! It was biting cold. The coldest I have ever felt. The seals broke from the haul-out and rushed down the sandbank for the shelter of their underwater realm – a comparatively balmy +4℃.

Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Donna Nook, England with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₃₂₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

Who could blame them!? It was utterly brutal! I tracked the seals as they lumbered down the shore, but with every second the visibility worsened. In a white-out, I could just make out the dark form of one seal. I framed the shot as best I could and shot just two frames before it vanished completely. Rather than up the ISO for a fast shutter speed, I banked on the smooth pan of my gimbal head to produce an image that captures the speed and ferocity of the storm and the battling motion of the seal. The final shot needed some boost to the contrast and a strong “S” on the curves, but it’s captured that scene perfectly.

Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Donna Nook, England with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

A quick word, if you are planning to visit the seals this winter. Pupping normally starts in October and access to the outlying sand bank is prohibited to avoid disturbance. In January, you should be fine to walk out, as all the pups and mothers will have dispersed. Plan your trip very carefully! Do heed my warnings about how you approach seals. Do not simply walk right up to them. Remember seals are wild animals. Life is tough enough for them!

Please also double-check with the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust for further details. Visiting during the week is still recommended as the car park is small and the roads are single track lanes. At all times, please follow the Nature Photographer’s Code of Conduct.SaveSave

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EndThank you for reading

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Photographic career began in 2002, freelancing as a commercial photographer. In 2005, I turned full-time 'wildlife pro', winning my first award and gaining agency contracts. Since then, I've travelled the world, photographing in the greatest wildlife hotspots.

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