Monday, December 08, 2008

How NOT to photograph Grey seals on the English coast

The internet is full of guides on how to photograph here or the guide to photographing subject XYZ. But I'm going to take a different approach. I'm going to tell what NOT to do to photograph Grey seals at Donna Nook.

I know, I know. You're scratching your head going "What the...? Why would I want to learn how NOT to do something?!?!?!"

Let me 'splain. But first, a little proof that this might be worth a read:

Grey seal pup, Halichoerus grypus by James O'Rear mm0035

Is he a cutie or what? Just a few hours old, his umbilical cord is still pink and pretty soft. So now are you interested? Read on my friend.

I have done a decent amount of wildlife photography but honestly, I'm a little rusty. I haven't lived in Alaska for 5 years and the largest wild animal in the Azores was the Least weasel I believe, unless you count feral goats. England has bigger game but with so much going on I haven't had a lot of time to keep the edge on my field craft. When I heard that one of England's largest populations of Grey seals birthed just a couple of hours north of where I live, I was ready to go... immediately. I actually had to wait a week but I was eager to get out there. I researched the site, printed maps and checked road details, plotted routs on the sat-nav and gathered gear from the shed containing boxes of gear I haven't used in a dog's age. I used to use a checklist when packing for a day like this but hey, I'm old and wide. Normal stuff for an outing, feels somewhat familiar. I'm ready to go.

So finally, the big day. Alarm goes off at 4am. Coffee maker perking away as I gather my gear scattered throughout the house. Poke my head outside and the weather has occurred just as forecast: 32 degrees, freezing fog. But this is probably my one chance to make it to the seals, the holiday season is crazy. A little fog won't slow me down too much. Car's packed, not my usual van-load as it died and I'm taking my wife's lovely BMW held together by the finest German rust. (Can you see it coming, can you??)

Half an hour into my slip-slide through Norfolk county on black ice roads my beloved Betty (the SatNav) decides to conk out. No problem, I reach to the right for my trusty map except... there's a door there. My map is back in my dead van. No problem! I remember when I was looking at a route that I needed the A1031 or something and it was to the east of Louth. I think. More slow driving and dirty water on the windshield from the gritted roads (known as sand in other parts of the world) and now my washer fluid isn't coming out. Broken connector tube from the cold (perhaps). Great.... luckily I have a bottle of window cleaner and I can just stick my hand out of the window to squirt it on the window. A this point I had a small thought that a sane person might consider packing it in at this point, but nooooo.

Two hours later I'm getting close to where I think I should be when I notice a big nasty ROAD CLOSED sign. "Oh yeah, I remember now." Now I'm on a detour through the skinniest, slipperiest back roads I've seen and I've seen a LOT. Solid ice, departed my planned route twice (ran off the road). Once I experienced a validation of my pucker function as I was headed to a drainage ditch that would have easily swallowed a bus, let along this little car. I reach for the maps I printed off of the local area... and get nothing. "Oh yeah..." I had taken them into the kitchen to get a bag to keep them dry and got distracted by the coffee pot making a funny noise. I sure they were safely still there. So I drive up and down roads until I find a bigger one,. then a bigger one, the lo-and-behold a sign. NO ACCESS TO SEALS Too bad I can't see anything to see if there's another sign around. More driving and I see the sign for the parking lot at Donna Nook. An hour and a half late I pull into the lot. Sun's not up yet but I'm going to have to hump it to get to the beach before it gets too light. Ah, optimism.

After a quick snack and a steamy cup o' coffee I'm ready to hit the beach. The area I'm headed to is a 40 minute walk from the car park, the beach/mud flats are very broad. Camera bag out, wellies out, waders... waders... WADERS?!?!?!?!? I had laid them on the radiator to dry the feet out after fixing a small hole in one foot and there they were still. I had not brought my rain pants because I was going to wear my waders, I had hosed out my wellies for the same reason and removed the insoles from my boots as well. All because I was bringing my waders. All I had for my legs was a thin part of thermals and a pair of fleece trousers. It was 34 degrees, thick fog, stiff north wind. Perfect setting for hypothermia. So I pressed on... like a dumbass.

Over the sand dunes I went and within 20 feet I saw my first seal. I knew they would be there, but I wanted to get out to the surf line where the images would be more of a challenge. I saw people dispersing in different directions so I split the difference and went into the fog, heading for the distant sound of crashing waves. No waders, a pair of poorly-fitting hiking boots and very chilly legs.

I had hiked in fog before, but usually on a trail. I had heard about the confusing nature of fog, but had never experienced it. Well, until then. After an hour and ten minutes and getting my feet soaked I ended up approximately 40 yards north of where I started. I was not happy. I may have momentarily lost my temper. Had I not started to rub the skin off the back of my heels I might have stomped like a big baby. So, a scant 2 minutes from my warm car and a reasonable excuse to bail, I set out again, bound not to walk in a giant circle again.

Ignoring the fog, I relied on my ears to keep the surf in front of me. Walking across the mud flats I noticed footprints going in every direction. "Misery loves company." After the predicted 40 minutes (plus another 15 for my blistered feet I arrived at the surf.

"Hmph. Where's all the seals?"

Not north, not south. So I stood and watched. Well, I tried to see the surf I could hear right in front of me but I sure couldn't see much with the fog. Soon a pair of figures emerged from the mist and quickly informed my that the seals definitely weren't north. So they took off and I walked slowly, quickly realizing that this was not exactly the best position to be in. And then I saw him. A few more steps and I saw THEM.

Grey seals in fog, Halichoerus grypus by James O'Rear mm0036

No light to speak of. Darn near ten o'clock and it's dark. But I take my pack off, pull out my bivy sack to lay it on and start my stalk. Crouch, ten steps, wait, crouch, 15 steps, wait, check for seals, adjust track, ten steps, crouch, wait. This is how I was taught to stalk game and so I did for the next 30 minutes. Then I watched a group of people walk right through the colony and they barely moved. The seals barely moved I mean. The seals get enough traffic to not be too wary of people. Hmph.

For the next two and a half hours I crouched among the seals of Donna Nook, watching newborn pups call out for momma and learn to crawl on the sand. Bulls would contort into odd Yoga-like positions that made me giggle and the cows would flip you away if you got too close, not a problem with the gear I was carrying. And suddenly the adrenaline wore off and I realized I was cold. Real cold. Dangerous cold. I thought "I'll just crawl in this bivy sack and take a little nap to get warm." and I knew I had to get back quickly. Taking a nap on a very flat tidal beach with mud flats to cross was NOT smart thinking, a clear sign of impending hypothermia. So I packed up my bag and after a short conversation with another photographer we decided to walk back together. Richard was "kind" enough to photograph me as I was taking a photo of the only bit of sun we saw for most of the day. I had packed up my main gear and used Jill's camera and I don't care if it looks pink.

Richard has some cracking shots, drop by his web site to take a look please.

Coming back the fog cleared and looking back I couldn't understand how I could have gotten turned around. Now that I've been there, it's so easy.

So from this experience I hope you can see that there are a lot of little things (OK, some big things as well) where a little more time spent checking would have made the day much more enjoyable. Had I not been as prideful as I can sometimes be I would have relied on a checklist to be properly equipped. Now to be honest I'm pretty pleased with the images which you can see over on my Flickr pages. But here I am more than a week later and I'm still wearing ill-fitting shoes to keep the pressure off of my heels. The water, cold and hiking just chewed 'em up. You can also keep track of your important events (like photo shoots in the wilderness) with the Grey Seals on the English Coast calendar available now and featuring our cute friend in the first photo on the cover.

So listen to all those guides that tell you about what you need to accomplish amazing photography, but also remember that little things can make it go wrong real quick. So just like this seal I'll blow you a kiss and wish you the best of luck.

Grey seal, Halichoerus grypus by James O'Rear mm0039