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Seals at Sunrise

Updated: Feb 15, 2020

A grey seal in the waves on an east Norfolk beach
Grey seal in the surf.

It took an early alarm to raise me from my slumber in order to make it to the coast by sunrise. The forecast constantly changed from cloud to broken sunshine so I was in two minds about going, but after an hour’s drive, I arrived to a glorious Norfolk sunrise.

A winter sunrise on the East Norfolk coast.
A winter sunrise on the East Norfolk coast.

I have been focussing on seals this winter season, and I know that one of the best places in the country to see them is right on my doorstep. Each time I visit them I learn a little bit more about their habits, the quality of the light, and the best places and angles from which to shoot.

From early November the beaches along the Norfolk coast fill with grey seals looking for a safe place to give birth, with up to two thousand pups being born each season. The adults usually return to the sea by the end of January with the pups soon following.

An early morning visit is essential on the east coast. The light is at its best and the beaches are relatively quiet. In fact, on my visit I seemed to be the only human in sight.

Seals on the beach are usually sleeping or resting and they often don’t seem to be doing very much, but this does help enormously when it comes to photography because it provides time to think about composition, and the best angles and camera settings. I’ve found that it’s best to choose your spot and be patient, and sooner or later something will happen.

My favourite experience on this visit was watching the seals at the very edge of the beach in the surf. The waves were particularly spectacular, I think partly because there was an incoming tide, and many seals were lounging and lolling in the surf getting spectacularly splashed by the waves.

An adult grey seal in the waves on a Norfolk beach.
An adult grey seal in the wild waves on a Norfolk beach.

They were completely unfazed by the turbulent waves, seemingly loving the sensation of being in the wild water. It took me a while to get to grips with what might be the best approach, but I eventually settled on being low to the ground and as close to the incoming water as I dared without either disturbing the seals or getting wet. I had earlier experimented with slow shutter speeds, which had mixed results, so I decided to speed things up by setting a fast shutter speed, choosing f8 as my aperture and setting iso to auto. This meant that I was regularly shooting at 1600 or 2000 iso, but I really wanted to freeze the moment and keep my focus sharp.

An adult grey seal about to be engulfed by incoming waves on a Norfolk beach in winter.
An adult grey seal about to be engulfed by incoming waves.

The most important and difficult element was timing, keeping one eye through the viewfinder carefully watching the seal for a good pose and the other on the waves as they sped towards the seal. I had to judge when to press the shutter to get the splash I hoped for, and I shot a good many images before I came close to something that I was excited by.

On another occasion I had returned after a tea break back at the car park, but in the winter afternoons the beach is mostly in shadow and I felt I’d done all I could there during the morning. However, I was lucky to come across a seal pup that had found itself a sheltered and cosy spot among the dunes. The light was beautiful with the low sun casting long shadows, so I decided to try to use backlighting.

Once again, I settled down quietly a safe distance from the seal so as not to alarm it. On this occasion I wanted the best possible quality from my images, so a low iso was essential. A low position so I could shoot at eye level with my subject was also crucial, and I set my exposure compensation to underexpose the images slightly in order not to blow out the highlights from the strong winter sun backlighting.

A grey seal pup seeks shelter up on the Norfolk dunes.
A grey seal pup sheltering up on the dunes.

It was a challenge shooting through the marram grass and getting the eyes in focus, but eventually the pup’s curiosity got the better of it, and the seal shuffled forwards and briefly pushed itself upwards in order to see what I was doing, posing nicely for a series of relatively uncluttered shots.

I stayed until the light faded and returned home keen to view my shots on the computer, because one never knows if images have worked until then. The seal season is well and truly over now, but I will return in November looking to improve on what I have learned during this winter. That is the beauty of photography, no matter how much you do, there are always improvements to be made, new ways of seeing, and lots more to learn.

If you are keen to visit the seals for yourself then please follow the link to The Friends of Horsey Seals website. It provides essential guidance for viewing these animals safely with minimal disturbance. Please remember, animal welfare comes first at all times.


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