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Sun, Sea, Sand and Seals

In August 2020 I was invited to a friend and former colleagues home up on the Norfolk coast. We were between lockdowns and despite having worked together on and off in the city, it had been a very long time since we had last seen each other.

Leaving Hertfordshire, it was a beautiful August day. The weather in the UK had been at a record high since March with seamlessly and unusually endless sunshine and warmth. Heading to Brancaster in Norfolk was the better choice as the Southern beaches were heavily crowded. Brancaster a small seaside village at the top end of the Norfolk coastline, I had no idea the surprise ahead of me. Pulling into my friends driveway, I was greeted by my friends wife who was taken by surprise by my arrival, he had bizarrely forgotten to let his wife know I was visiting and ultimately she was the one who inform me there was a little more to Brancaster than a beautiful landscape. Calling out to her husband, she reminded him to tell me about the seals. I had always known that seals could be found in Norfolk, but I had no idea there was a large colony in Brancaster.

Sending my friend out towards the beach to guide me to a small cove, she was equally keen to see my photography upon my return later that afternoon. The route I was taken would not be the route I would take on my second visit a year later in August 2021. However, walking along the meadows behind the houses towards the beach, was just as much of a revelation than if you drive to the beach car park.

Parting ways with my friend and heading towards the beach along the coastal path with some rough directions, my attention was diverted by the sheer number of birds and insects thriving by the beach. Brancaster beach is part of a huge National Trust nature reserve. When you look at it, you see vast greenery with grasses, reeds and wildflowers over sandy dunes. There is a rich estuary that leads in from the sea that is thriving with wildlife and there is the unmistakable scent of suntan lotion as you walk closer towards the sandy dunes.

The sand is soft and you have to watch your footing especially as you step onto the beach itself. The reason for this is, whilst it is a clean sandy beach, there is a lot of razor clam debris amongst other shells which could give you a nasty cut on your feet. As I head through the reserve and onto the beach, I walk to the North of the beach, as I am looking for the estuary that runs in land from the sea.

On the horizon there is a vast wind farm and on both visits to Brancaster a year apart, the beach whilst busy was not crowded and this can be attributed to the sheer size of coastline of this area of Norfolk.

The wind farm you can see is the Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm which comprises of 88 wind turbines. This was constructed in 2008 and is one of many around the UK which is part of the drive for green energy.

Moving along the shoreline, I find the estuary and proceed to follow it up back in land and to my amazement, there were over 40 common seals sunbathing on the same side of the shore I was on in August 2020. When I returned in August 2021, there were less seals but they were lounging in their usual spot as I have been reliably informed which is on the opposite side of the estuary banks. I am sure you will see the appeal in these endearing sea mammals, but don’t be fooled by those big eyes.

Having spent years honing skills which has allowed me to get close to wildlife without distressing the subject, it was crucial to remain very low, quiet and subtle, though I do not recommend you do this. What I had to do next was set up my equipment quietly and then carefully bum shuffle to a safe distance but one that was close enough for my lens to capture their characters and features.

There are two species of seals in the UK, the common seal and the grey seal. To tell them apart, you need to look for some subtle differences. So what are these differences between common and grey seals?

Grey seals are the largest land breeding mammal in the UK, they have an elongated head and their nostrils are V-shaped, whilst grey seals are smaller in size with a shorter head and a defined concurve. They have nostrils which are parallel and do not meet. Common seals are very variable in colour, from blonde to black, but grey seals are generally grey brown or grey mottling.

Another name for the common seal is harbor seal but one thing both have in common, are those very large endearing brown eyes which to many give the impression these mammals are harmless, cute and cuddly. Hence don’t be fooled. Whilst seals are generally peaceful and inquisitive creatures that enjoy lazing on the beach or playing in the waters. They are excellent hunters and they have some big teeth which are capable of doing serious damage. If a seal feels threatened, they will use their sharp teeth to bite at predators or strike them with their flippers which have sharp claws. It is strongly advised not to get too close to seals for exactly this reason. You often see videos of them playing with divers and this is seals being friendly and playful on their terms. Now sat approximately 3 metres away (do not do this yourself) and not making any sudden moves. I was fortunate to photograph and capture a few good shots of their canines.

There was as always amusement in my experience with these unique and beautiful mammals and it went a little like this. When I arrived to find the large colony in 2020, the bum shuffling maneuver began approximately 20 metres away. Each time I would shuffle myself and equipment 2 metres at a time and wait. The seals would look up and look a little bemused as if to think to themselves, wasn’t she further away a minute ago? They’d be right, but as I was moving subtly, this meant I posed no threat to them and I could see they had some growing pups amongst them so this was crucial to remain non-threatening to them as the mothers are very protective of their pups.

Sitting with these seals was a really special treat and I ended up sat there for over 5 hours just observing and documenting their activities. They’re incredibly powerful creatures and this I noticed when videoing one coming up onto the beach from the water.

Common seals are approximately 6 feet in length and weigh in at around 300 lbs. They have been seen swimming up rivers including the River Thames, where there is also a small colony looking for food or just resting on the banks. In 2021, a young seal unfortunately became the victim of a dog attack and this is something that is of great concern which I had also observed whilst in Norfolk. Whilst no attacks took place on both my visits, a few owners continued to allow their dogs off leads and run at the seals but thankfully were stopped by other members of the public and ushered away. The London attack unfortunately was unstoppable despite members of the public intervening and the young seal suffered severe injuries resulting in animal welfare rescues having to euthanize it.

Wildlife charities around the UK work tireless trying to raise awareness to protect our native species, unfortunately there is still an incredible ignorance by a minority who ruin experiences like this for so many and it is not just with mans best friend unfortunately. Whilst I was sat with the seals, it was noticed a few holidaymakers getting way too close and whilst I guided the panicked children to safety, other sensible beachgoers yelled at the adults.

Thankfully the seal were relatively relaxed, soaking up the August sunshine.

I spent a lot time observing the mother and her pup that was closest to me and how they interacted with each other, pup following mother’s lead in the art of relaxation. Other facts about common seals are they can live up to 30 years and they are protected under the Conservation of Seals Act, 1970 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985, they are also classified as a Priority Species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework. Seals generally feed in shallow waters and resting on the beach isn’t just for relaxation purposes, it is so they can digest their food. They diet consists of fish, squid, whelks, crabs and mussels. The pups are born during the summer and are able to swim when they are only a few hours old!

Returning to my friends house after time with the seals in 2020. They were delighted with the photography of my experience. However, I was keen to return to Brancaster in 2021 and spent an equal amount of time observing the seals, but this time I would also experience a goby pedicure, watch jellyfish swim and I got a rare surprise flying up over the sand dunes.

One of the things I noticed this time when walking along the beach was there are patches of black sand. I hadn’t noticed this previously as I’d taken a different route to the beach on my last visit and this time I took a paddle in the shallows as the waves crashed in.

I noticed the rock pools and that this time there were a few more jellyfish that previously seen. The best bit about this was I managed to video one swimming along the edge of the estuary. Jellyfish are funny things and are often the subject of fear, fear of being stung. However the species of jellyfish on Brancaster are relatively harmless and are Moon jellyfish. Moon jellyfish do not sting, but you will often see many a clueless human run in terror and a clued up one pick them up from the top and chase after clueless human.

Moon jellies can grow to the size of a plate, they are recognisable by the four circles visible through the translucent white bell. These four circles are the reproductive organs or gonads of the moon jelly and they are located at the bottom of the stomach, often a purple in colour. Moon jellies are very common in UK and are often found washed up on shore. Jellyfish are 95% water and have no brain, blood or heart and they have short, delicate tentacles which hang down from the sides of the bell. They feed on plankton and pass the food into their mouth parts using special tentacles.

So next time you see one of these delicate jellies, give it a hand and pop it back into the sea.

Walking along the estuary, it was important to keep an eye out at all times as seals were swimming in from the North sea and could become inquisitive at any point. There was an endless shoal of small fish lining the edge of the estuary, darting in and out as I paddled up to the cove. This time the seals were basking on the other side and I would take a front row view at the water’s edge capturing them swimming up and having minor seal disagreements with flippers at the ready for handbags at dawn.

Whilst sat waiting for the seals to swim up, I kept my feet buried in the sand with the water lapping at my ankles and I notice these cheeky little fish. They kept swimming up and surrounding my feet and ankles and when I moved they’d swim a little distance and then return. These little fish are called sand gobies.

The sand goby can grow up to 10cm in length and they have a habit of spitting sand at each other and no doubt me too. These feisty little fish are burrowers and they use their mouths to dig shifting sand away from their burrows. Their diet includes a variety of  brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, live black worms as well as the odd fish, making these a carnivorous fish. Thankfully too small to eat my feet but I can say they gave it a good go at the old fish pedicure.

Sand gobies can be found in shallow waters such as rock pools and in estuaries like the one I was at in Brancaster and brackish water across sandy, shingle and muddy seabeds. They are usually a yellowy to light brown colour with a darkened blotches or speckling. They are also found throughout Scandinavian waters and the Mediterranean.

Whilst the sand gobies worked their fishy magic entertaining my feet, the seals began to swim in and just when I thought my day couldn’t get more interesting a huge bird of prey rose up from behind the dunes. Unsure of what it was and having to get a friend to ID the species, it turned out to be the illusive Marsh Harrier. Unfortunately I was caught off guard so the photos are not as good as I would like them to be as I had all the camera settings set up for the seals.

It appears I was incredibly lucky to see one, as they are on the amber list due to historical decline. It is one of the great success stories of recent times in Norfolk and lowland England, thanks to conservation efforts by various wildlife charities and trusts. They had become extinct in the UK through habitat loss and persecution in the latter part of the century despite once being abundant in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia in theearly 19th Century. The marsh harriers used to breed sporadically in the Broads, and occasionally at other sites, from 1927 to 1975. Since this period the number of nests has risen steadily. The marsh harrier is the largest of the harriers, and can be recognised by its long tail and light flight with wings held in a shallow ‘V’.

Going back to the seals, I continued to photograph them and capture more of their character and doe eyed looks before heading home as the sun began to set again.

My next adventure takes us back to last year when I made a trip up to Northampton and Leicestershire.

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