A seal experience

After reading a recent post of Becky’s my own comment on that post got me thinking back to an amazing wildlife experience I had at a place on the Lincolnshire coast back in 2007, so in the absence of a Monday walk I thought I would post an account and a few photos of that experience. I can’t remember now how I first found out about this particular place – probably from the camping forum I frequent – but the more I read about it the more I wanted to go there so I started doing some serious research and came across a very informative website for photographers, which gave advice and suggestions for getting close-up shots of the wildlife.
Donna Nook National Nature Reserve covers over 6 miles of the Lincolnshire coastline and is made up of sand dunes, sand and mud flats, salt marshes and inter-tidal areas ; it’s also part of a larger area owned by the Ministry of Defence and the sand flats are used during the week for RAF bombing practice. Interesting plant communities flourish in the salt marshes and 47 species of birds breed regularly in the area, with over 250 migrant species passing through, but the main attraction for visitors is the large colony of grey seals which, from the end of October to late December, use the sand flats and salt marshes in one particular area for breeding and giving birth to their pups before returning to sea.
A special enclosed double-fenced viewing area at the foot of the dunes is staffed by volunteer wardens from the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust ; it had only been put in place in 2007, not only to protect the seals from the visitors but also to protect the visitors from the seals as even a young one can inflict a nasty bite if feeling threatened, however serious photographers were allowed to go out onto the sand flats to observe and photograph the seals at close quarters, though certain rules had to be followed. Anyone wanting to photograph these creatures close up would need  to be serious about it too as there was a bitingly cold wind blowing and the mile trek across the sand involved wading through water channels several inches deep ; it was necessary to wear at least three layers of warm clothing plus dark coloured waterproofs and wellies and in some instances to act like a seal by crawling or sliding along the wet sand.
In the course of my research that year I found out that there was a nice little camp site only a couple of miles from where the seals were so I booked four nights for myself, my partner and our caravan and off we went at the end of November, arriving at the site at lunch time and spending the afternoon settling in. Our first full day there was treated as a recce of the seal area and even from behind the fence I could see that this place was pretty special ; hundreds of seals, both young and adult, were dotted about over a huge area and as far as the eye could see, and several were close up against the fence with one pup having its head actually under  the inner fence.
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A small part of the seal colony
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The following day, suitably dressed in warm layers, waterproofs and wellies, we set out from the viewing area on our trek across the sand and out towards the sea, following a designated marked out route to avoid the possibility of being blown up by some unexploded object buried in the sand – presumably, as long as we followed the rules and the route, we would survive with arms and legs etc intact. Eventually we got close to the sea – seals were dotted about everywhere and I spent well over an hour getting shots of various adults and pups. I got close but not too  close – I had to kneel, sit, crawl or lie on the wet sand several times but it meant that I got the shots I wanted without disturbing the seals so it was worth any minor discomfort.
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The next day we returned to the reserve as I hoped to see a seal pup being born, though this time we stayed behind the fence. Unfortunately I didn’t get to witness an actual birth but I did see a little one which had obviously been born not long before. I got several more photos of these wonderful creatures but the intermittent sunshine wasn’t enough to give any warmth to the day and it was bitterly cold so reluctantly I said goodbye to Donna Nook and we returned to the camp site for our final evening.
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A newborn pup
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Maybe the world looks better upside down
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A final view of Donna Nook
Five years later, and with my partner off the scene, I went back to Donna Nook on my own. I’d enjoyed the previous experience of getting close to the seals on the sand flats so much that I wanted to repeat it but when I got there I found that things had changed – access to the sand flats and beach had been blocked and all  visitors had to stay behind the fence. On talking to one of the wardens I was told that since my previous visit the handful of serious photographers allowed onto the beach had turned into coachloads of visitors, some on works outings, and as many as 300 people a time were walking out across the sand flats. This meant that at least 65 seal pups per season were being lost, abandoned by their mothers and left to die because of all the human disturbance.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that I couldn’t repeat my previous experience ; I was  disappointed as it had been such a fantastic thing to be able to do, but I fully understood and respected the reasons for preventing public access to the beach while the seals were there – just one pup lost to human interference is one too many. Seals have been breeding at Donna Nook since the 1970s and numbers have been increasing each year, with a total of 2,066 pups being born during the short 2018 season.  My once-in-a-lifetime experience back in 2007 had proved to be just that, but if I ever go to Donna Nook again I know I’ll still get some great photos even if I do have to stay behind the fence.

22 thoughts on “A seal experience

  1. What a wonderful experience for you. It’s good to know the seals are breeding successfully and numbers increasing. I wonder why they give birth in the winter months and on the beach rather than in the sea but obviously Mother Nature knows best. Lovely photos Eunice, the pups are beautiful and I like the upside down ones 🙂

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  2. I suppose the winter months are the seals’ natural breeding and birthing times, and on land to enable their young to suckle. The upside down ones look cute don’t they? Mother seals will only suckle their babies for 18 days before leaving them to mate again and return to the sea, and I noticed that all the upside down ones were on their own – I just wanted to scoop them all up and bring them home 🙂

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  3. Wow! I’m so glad you managed to finish your walk with your arms and legs intact, as I’ve really enjoyed looking at these photographs. It must have been a fantastic experience to get so close to the seals in this way. It’s a shame you weren’t able to repeat it but it’s better to know the seals are protected and it’s wonderful that their numbers are increasing. X

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  4. It’s a good thing I kept my arms intact, I wouldn’t have been able to take the photos otherwise 🙂 🙂 It was a brilliant experience and I would have loved to repeat it but if it comes to a choice between me taking photos and the welfare of the seals then the seals win every time. Too much of the world’s wildlife is lost due to human interference so I’m glad these are protected and their numbers are increasing 🙂

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  5. That’s an amazing post with some beautiful photos & definitely a once in a lifetime experience. I laughed at the signs (are some people that silly?), and oohed & aahed over the seals. I loved the one looking at an upside down world & the one below it looking up longingly at the camera. Yes, we humans have a lot to answer for, but I hope I don’t fall into the category of being a nuisance. Thanks for sharing. It made my morning. Take care.

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    1. The yellow part of the second sign makes me smile – and yes, some people probably are silly enough to pick up something they found lying on the sand. All the seal pups are adorable but the upside down ones look especially cute. Looks can be deceiving though, even young ones can give a nasty bite if they feel threatened. I took well over 200 photos over the three days and these are just a few – I’m glad you like them 🙂

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  6. You’ve got some gorgeous photos, Eunice. They are adorable when they’re small, aren’t they, but you’re right. Much better to leave them with Mum and keep your distance. 🙂 🙂

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  7. Amazing photos Eunice and what a wonderful experience. I’m of course glad though that the seals are more protected now. They are such beautiful looking mammals.x

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  8. It was a brilliant experience in spite of the soggy wet conditions so I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it, but I’m equally glad that the seals are now more protected. On land they are such ungainly creatures when they move but I watched two playing in the sea and it was almost like watching a well rehearsed synchronised swimming routine 🙂

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  9. You got some cool photos of these cute creatures. To see a just born pup, wow. About 90 minutes to the northwest of us is a state park for these guys. We can only go so far down to see them. The last time we were there, a ranger gave me a small piece of a dried seal’s pelt from his show and tell collection. I still have no idea what to do with it.

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    1. I’m glad I got the opportunity to photograph the seals at close quarters but I’m equally glad to know that they are now more protected. I don’t know what you would do with your piece of seal pelt – I only hope it came from a seal which had died naturally, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about 😦

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  10. Wow, I see what you mean when you said “an awwww moment” ! Outstanding pictures, and a treasured memory.

    I remember reading about Donna Nook some years ago and being very glad the fences were now in place. The effect that humans have on all the other inhabitants of our planet is something I am ashamed of every day.

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  11. I certainly had plenty of ‘awwww’ moments when I was there, it was a photo opportunity not to be missed and one I’ll never have again but I’m glad the seals are now more protected and their numbers are increasing each year.

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  12. What extraordinary photographs, simply fabulous. And what a life changing and memorable experience. I am so envious of you despite the risk of limbs to unexploded devices or frostbite! Both of which I presume are not risks to the seals!!

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  13. I thought you would like the photos, those are just a small selection of well over 200 I actually took. The seals don’t seem to be at all bothered by the RAF jets roaring overhead and the bombing targets are away from the main seal area so there was no real risk to life or limb as long as we didn’t stray from the marked out route. I’ve never had a bucket list but if I had that experience would certainly have been one of the things on it 🙂

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  14. Agree a fantastic experience before the fence but perhaps it’s needed now with so many. It’s on my blog with fence a couple of years ago and I was still so smitten. So close too as many of the seals seemed to like being by the fence! Found you through Becky. We are mainly in Spain but hubby lived near Donna Nook so took his son there a lot!

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  15. Hi, and welcome to the Mouse House. What a coincidence that you went to Donna Nook a couple of years ago – the double fence had been put in place the first year I went there and I was quite surprised how close up to it some of the seals came. The second time I went I also visited an animal sanctuary near there and almost came home with a little blind dog! 🙂

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