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Guide to Grey Seals at Donna Nook

Picture the scene, it’s 6:45 a.m. and we’ve just arrived at Donna Nook, on the east coast of the UK. I have been up since 2:30 a.m. and I’ve been driving since 3:15 a.m. to cover the 200 miles needed before sunrise. We’re now about to walk a mile or so out to the sand banks with heavy equipment to spend 3, maybe 4, hours photographing the seals during the mating season only to get back in the car and go home…crazy? Sounds it, but once you’re out there and amongst these huge, completely wild animals it’s an experience you really can’t beat!

EDIT 2014: Since this was originally written all those years ago, it is now highly recommended that visitors do NOT go out on to the sand flats.

Flirting during the mating season

Flirting during the mating season

About Donna Nook & when to go
Donna Nook, on the East Lincolnshire Coast is one of the better (and therefore more popular) places to see seals in the UK. It is home to over 3000 seals some years have seen over 1000 pups born there. There is only a smallish window of opportunity to photograph them at their best, usually October, November and December being the favourite months as this is when they breed and have young. The are is actually owned by the MoD and used for bombing practice during the week (don’t worry, the Seals are safe) so the weekend is the only time you can get out to the shoreline, failing that you can still see many seals by walking along the pathway near the car park – the real adventurous though will want to get out on that beach and walk the mile or so out to the sandbanks and shoreline, it’s hard going as you are walking through slipy silt that also tries to hold you down making it particularly hard at times, especially with a 600mm over your shoulder!

Relaxing in the waves

Relaxing in the waves

The weather…
You are always at the mercy of the weather in the UK, but even more so in winter. Weather here can range from cold and clear, to cold and rain to cold and foggy. Yep, no matter the weather the one thing you can always count on at Donna Nook is the cold – it is freezing! I can’t stress enough that you must have proper water proof and weather proof clothing on. If you get wet out there, you’ll get cold very quickly and that is the very last thing you want when you are so far from the warmth of your car. When I’ve been I’ve had mixed conditions, once the light has been good all morning and on my other visit the light was lovely when the sun first came up but unfortunately 15 minutes after rising it went behind cloud cover and didn’t return – except for a brief spell once we had walked back to the car later in the morning…typical! But at least it didn’t rain and the wind didn’t whip up a sandstorm!

A sign of affection

A sign of affection

…and the tide!
Low tide is the time to get out on the sand banks so if you’re coming from afar, make sure you check the tide times as you only have access out to the seals on the shoreline when the tide is out. Get it wrong and you could have driven an awfully long way for nothing! But added to that, when you are out on the sand banks always keep an eye on what the tide is doing, because time goes quickly when you’re having fun and if you don’t realise it, that tide could start coming in and when it does, the sand banks get cut off from the mainland, and in extreme cases the water can cover them completely!

Protect your camera equipment
Because of the harsh conditions it’s important to remember that not only do you need protecting from the elements but so does your camera. The first time I went there with my 200-400 I had no protective cover and when I got home, my zoom ring made a lovely grinding noise thanks to all the sand that had worked it’s way in – needless to say it then had to pay a visit to Nikon for cleaning! I’ve seen photographers use everything from bin liners to proper covers (I now use the ThinkTank Photo Hydrophobia) to keep their equipment dry and sand free. Don’t be fooled, even if it’s not very windy the sand will find a way in to your gear, so keep it covered!

First light

First light

What lenses to take?
Whatever you have! But to be more specific, to guarantee minimum disruption or possible stress to the seals, especially the pups (more on that in a minute) I’d recommend the longest telephoto you can get your hands on. Personally, I’d always want at least a 300mm with me to get nice shots from a reasonable distance but there are times when something shorter can be used (I’ve seen a huge male waddle up to a photographer once, and just lay there and go to sleep, no more than 10 feet away). I found the 200-400 perfect, although I’ve also used my 600mm with a 1.4x TC as well. I’ve also seen photographers taking wide angle lenses to produce environmental shots showing off the seals in their habitat. So whatever equipment you have, you’ll be able to use it. But, please remember…

They are curious creatures but use common sense
Although walking along the shoreline surrounded by hundreds of these seals just as the sun breaks over the sea is incredible…and sitting, photographing and watching these gentle giants is a great experience…and despite that fact they are very curious creatures which will stop and watch you to see what your doing…and even though get too close and they will scarper, usually in to the sea,  you still have to remember not to get too close! And when approaching, always do so by getting as low to the ground as you can. If you just sit and wait and they will often come closer to you anyway, closer than if you try going to them. So be patient! As with all wildlife photography do not try and get closer than you should, they seem not to be bothered as you approach but don’t take that as a sign that you can walk right up to them. Use some common sense and do not cause tehm any stress. If they have young nearby, you especially need to be careful – if the young ones get your scent on them or are forced away from the parent for too long they may get abandoned by the mother, and then they are left to die. May sound overly dramatic but every visit I’ve paid to Donna Nook I’ve seen dead seal pups!

On my last visit, as I approached a group of maybe 60 they all headed for the water, swam out just off shore then turned to watch and see what I was doing. I decided to head back the other way along the shore and leave them to it, only to turn round after 30 seconds of walking to see the whole lot of them swimming along just behind me, following me up the beach! I headed back in their direction and they swam further out again. I turned to walk away and they were back following me, and did so a good 50 yards before I decided to head back on to the beach. They really are funny animals to be around!

Lounging in the sun

Lounging in the sun

An amazing experience
Wear the right clothing, have the right camera protection and above all respect the seals and you can have a great time at Donna Nook – and more often than not come back with some nice images. For me it’s a long journey, so I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like but every once in a while I’ll drive up there and head out on to those sand banks as it’s an experience that can’t be beaten and if you like wildlife photography it’s certainly something you should try at least once.

About the author

Richard Peters is a Surrey based professional wildlife photographer, Nikon Ambassador, and one of the few British photographers to receive the accolade of European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He is known for a style that often favours dramatic use of light, runs wildlife photography workshops and, from camera clubs to big industry events, holds talks about his work.

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