The Circle of Life unfolds on a Norfolk Beach one day in January
This is more than a little surreal. I left home at three thirty this morning, having had precious little sleep due to a combination of excitement and apprehension, and I now find myself in a car park on the North Norfolk coast, in the dark, with people I’ve met on the internet. You’re not supposed to do that! But fear not dear reader, it’s quite safe – they are all members of Foto-buzz and they are here for the highly anticipated Grey Seals Mini-Meet, and as introductions are made I find them all to be thoroughly decent folk. It’s my first ever meeting with other members, and there is a real sense of anticipation in the air as a short walk brings us to the viewing area and the first sight of the beach from the vantage point of the dunes.
Down on a shingle bank at the foot of the dunes I can just make out the outline of a pup in the dim light.
Some of our merry band choose to set up here and wait for the light to improve. Others have carried on a bit further but it seems that there are only lone seals on the beach here. I can see a couple of seals swimming in the surf and they seem to be heading up the coast. Where are they going? I head off to find out.
I hear a plaintive long low moaning noise, and finally as the sun begins to make an appearance I come across the source and simultaneously find what I am looking for – the main colony (or at least a sizeable one) all gathered at groyne 35. I spend the next five minutes scouting round for a good spot and find a good vantage point between two large tussocks of marram grass at the front edge of the dunes on a slight rise. The sun is gradually brightening everything up and bathing the scene in a warm light. My position is a good one because the beach shelves down into the water, and my slightly elevated position gives me a nice line of sight across the surface of the sand, giving me a lugworms eye-view of the proceedings. All in all, things are looking promising.
I seem to be all alone, and have lost the main party. Darn it, I’ve left my phone in the car so I can’t let the guys know where I am. Probably couldn’t get a signal here anyway so I’d better concentrate on the job at hand. To my right about twenty feet away on the sand and obviously fast asleep on its back is a very rotund pup, with its silvery silken coat illuminated in the golden morning light slanting in from the east. This is clearly my cute baby seal photo opportunity so I decide to work this part of my shoot first as the light still is too poor for shooting the main group further out on the sand. It isn’t that easy though – his head is in shadow and there’s nothing I can do about it. Maybe he will roll about a bit later and I can get another angle. I don’t want to go out on the sand as this might upset him and mum is nowhere to be seen. Respect the wildlife.
The sun has risen sufficiently now and as I look out to the colony I am able to make out the big old bulls with their dark brown colouration and big snouts, and the more mature pups, but I can’t tell the younger males from the females.
Some animals are lying on their sides with their heads and feet in the air - it looks uncomfortable but they seem happy in that position.
The variety of shape, size and colouration of these animals is great. They come in all sorts of colours; golden to dark brown, solid colours to mottled, and textures; smooth silvery and shiny to coarse, hairy and scarred. Plenty to photograph there then, though compositionally I will need to be wary of their long bodies causing large expanses of empty space in my shots.
The really big bulls are numerous in this group, are very impressive animals, about 8 feet long, look very heavy and have huge snouts. Fights generally start with a bit of mild provocation like this...
...but just as often one strays into anothers patch or interferes with its body space and a tussle starts, which is generally all bluster and hot air.
A dog walker is out on the sand approaching the seals and the reaction of the colony is less than impressive to be honest. One or two raise their heads and inspect the interlopers, but most simply carry on sleeping.
I smile to myself. They look like characters form a Dr Seuss story. Yes, that’s it, they are the original Sneeches on the Beaches! (though I can’t see any stars on thars!).
Once the dogs have gone the surfer pulls himself out and hauls himself out up the beach, his flippers lifting his huge weight off the beach and launching his inflated body forwards a few feet at a time.
Then he rolls over and from his expression I'd say he has had one too many clams to eat for breakfast...
...............and then you die
Let battle commence
It’s mid-morning now and there is a big domestic going on out there. It started with some very loud agitated grumbling, rising to a roaring, followed by a couple of big brown bulls and two younger animals, one of which is beautifully marked in golden yellow-orange with darker mottling, rearing up against each other.
The combatants swing a flipper at each other, rise up to full height with muzzles together, then lay in with the teeth. The claws come out and sand and body parts fly everywhere. It is very dramatic to watch. The sand round the colony was littered with pink patches of flesh and stained red with blood, and was being picked over by crows, and little scurrying sanderlings looking for an easy meal.
A hundred yards or so to my right I can see a couple of large gulls pulling at something substantial in the sand at the surf edge – it looks like a pup carcass. Perhaps a bull flattened it, or maybe a passer-by got too close and the mother abandoned it, who knows. The whole circle of life is going on right in front of my eyes.
The colony is calmer now. They all appear to have settled their differences and are nodding off, warmed by the afternoon sun slanting its golden rays in from behind the dunes. The shadows are lengthening and my pup friend has hardly moved all day apart from playing with a little bit of dried seaweed lying on the sand next to him.
I’ll leave him be. I have had a great day here and I am reasonably hopeful that I have some good images in the can. I have over a thousand shots so I am going to have a problem when it comes to my virtual seal cull. I feel privileged to have been able to spend the day with these intriguing mammals, and document a variety of their behaviours. They put on a good show today – we had it all; comedy and tragedy, tranquility and all-out warfare. I, for one, will be back next year for more high-octane action.