Donna Nook nature reserve

Please note: the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust is currently requesting that photographes do not visit the sandbank during pupping season. In light of this request I would recommend that you plan any visits to take place after Christmas. If in doubt - check with the LWT.

When it comes to photographing large animals there are a few simple rules that need to be followed: you must be where the animals go, and when they are there, take your time to seek out cooperative individuals and make the most of any circumstances that go your way. Fortunately there is a site on the east Lincolnshire coast that guarantees three out of four of these rules will be met. You will have to bring your own luck.

Donna Nook location map.
Donna Nook National Nature Reserve (NNR) is probably the best place within the U.K. for photographing grey seals. Each year, as autumn rolls into winter, hundreds of grey seals begin hauling themselves out onto Donna Nooks' sandbanks to give birth to their pups. Here the most important activities of the grey seal calendar are played out, giving photographers unprecedented opportunities to capture dramatic pictures of this spectacular period.

Grey Seals

Knowing a little about your subject goes a long way to achieving great images in most spheres of nature photography. It's no different when photographing grey seals. Grey seals Halichoerus grypus (also known as the Atlantic seal) are Britain's largest land mammals, with males averaging just over two meters in length and weighing in at up to 300kg - females are a little shorter and much lighter. Numerous colonies of grey seals can be located around the British Isles (comprising 50% of the global population), each with a slightly different starting date to their breeding season: September in Wales, October in western Scotland and November at Donna Nook.

Grey seal photography at Donna Nook.
Cutie Warning! Baby seals are dangerously overloaded with the ahh! factor.
Large bull seals typically arrive at Donna Nook in early November, coming ashore to set up territories and wait for females to turn up. Cow seals arrive shortly after and are herded into harems by the bulls, where they give birth to a single cream-coloured pup. The young pups are suckled for three weeks during which time their weight will triple, and they will gradually lose their pale coat. Once pups are weaned females become available for mating giving rise to much competition among the bulls. Each "Beach Master" bull will try to hold his harem against all challengers. Fights can be vicious and bloody. The action peaks about mid-December. By the end of January it's all over and the seals are back out at sea.

As they spend much of their time on the open sandbanks grey seals are ideal photographic subjects. Being endearingly curious, and often comical and inquisitive, it is easy to be drawn into a false sense of security around these dangerous animals. You must always be on your guard and watch for telltale warning signs. Approaching adults with young can be particularly stressful for both them and you. A hiss from mum is the first warning sign; a repeated "mom" call from junior is another. If a seal rolls over and waves you away with a flipper it's time to back off. A bite from an agitated seal will be something you will never, ever forget. The large bulls are even more dangerous. If they come at you barking, beware - their speed is surprising and they can easily catch you off guard.

Donna Nook NNR

Grey seal photography at Donna Nook.
When 300kg of quivering blubber is heading your way it's prudent to move on.
The full reserve stretches 10km along the east coast of England. There are several access points to the reserve but I use the Stonebridge entrance for grey seal photography (Grid Ref: TF422998). This is signposted from the A1031 at North Somercoates, approximately 20km south of Grimsby. Most visitors come to see the creamy-white seal pups born among sand dunes close to the car park. This birthing area is fenced off with no public access and is monitored by a warden. This is fine for viewers but offers limited scope for photographers. In order to make the most of photographing grey seals at Donna Nook you need to trek out to sandbanks about one and a half kilometres away. Leave the car park and head out across the wet and slimy mudflats. Aim for a One-O-Clock bearing that skirts the cordoned off area and takes you past a line of round orange markers. The mud gives way to water-covered sand, which finally leads to slightly raised sandbanks at the waters' edge. It takes about 40 minutes of steady walking. Listen out for the barking bull seals that can be heard long before they are seen.

Grey seal photography at Donna Nook.
Pups are happiest when they are closest to mum.
Seal photography at Donna Nook is often best around low tide. If this falls between mid-day and early afternoon you will be blessed with the greatest opportunity for a wide range of photographs. At high tide the sandbank can become cut off. If the sea height is greater than seven metres, with a strong wind blowing, there is a risk of the sandbanks being breached. Water can then reach as far as the dunes. Always check before you go (tide times - opens in a new window).

Viewing access to the pups in the wardened area is available daily during the season. Visiting the sandbanks is strictly controlled due to weekday Ministry of Defence (MoD) activities. The reserve is leased to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust but owned by the MoD and frequently used as a bombing range. WARNING: Do not walk out to the dunes if red flags are flying. There is no MoD activity at weekends and Bank Holidays, so these are the times to plan your visit.

Your Equipment
Donna Nook seems to bring out the creative streak in photographers when it comes to transporting their equipment.

Grey seal photography at Donna Nook.
There are a number of different ways to carry your equipment around on the sandbanks.
Some use modified golf or shopping trolleys to ferry their outfit across the sand. Others have used sleds designed for snow. I prefer a good old rucksack style camera bag myself. Taking a bin liner is useful when on location to place your camera bag in, protecting it from the worst conditions when the sand is either damp or so dry that it's blowing around.

A full range of lenses can be used if you are very patient and skilled at approaching grey seals. Otherwise use the longest telephoto you have got. This gives you the best chance of isolating individual seals and means that you are less likely to stress them.

A good support is needed and a tripod that allows low-angle photography is worth carrying. Photographing grey seals at eye-level creates lots of impact. Getting really low is best achieved using a beanbag. Sliding it around on sand can be awkward so some photographers build a sand sledge to make life easier (a piece of wood, tea tray, biscuit tin lid, large plant pot dish etc.).

Photographing Grey Seals

Grey seal photography at Donna Nook.
"Aw shucks! Of all the seals on all the beaches in all the world - you want to photograph me?"
Ideally plan your visit for a bright day with light cloud as the sea looks grim in overcast weather, and contrast is very high in direct sunlight. Seals are best approached low and slow. Rushing around upright will have every seal within photographing distance on edge and ready to bolt. This will automatically endear you to all of your fellow photographers, particularly those who have spent the last half-hour carefully working themselves into position, only to see their subject disappear in an instant. Out on the sand bank the key word is respect - of your subject, the nature reserve and other photographers. A few renegade photographers who deliberately stress the seals to get a picture are putting public access at risk for us all.

The only bear trap that you really need to look out for is tilted horizons. It is all too easy to be concentrating so hard on seals that too little attention is paid to your background. Out of focus blobs caused by other seals or photographers are easily spotted. It's off-level horizons that seem to sneak in to too many photographs. Sometimes it is necessary to play with the perspective a little. The sandbank is not perfectly flat and can create the appearance of a tilted horizon. Distinctly sloping edges in a photograph are much more acceptable than slightly slanted ones. In this case it may be necessary to tilt the camera to restore balance to the image.

I've already hinted at this but you need to protect your equipment. Sand is constantly being blown around and will get into every nook and cranny if allowed. Going home with lenses that crunch when adjusted can take the edge off your Donna Nook experience. Either cover your lenses in plastic bags taped at either end (good for zooms), or tape up all gaps between moving parts and only use auto focus (good for fixed focal length). Use a large plastic bag over your equipment when changing lenses to minimise the chance of sand ingress.

Looking After Yourself
It's winter, you are on the exposed east coast, on an isolated beach, a north wind is blowing and it's bitterly cold. If you don't go correctly dressed then your visit will be either surprisingly short or desperately uncomfortable.

Grey seal photography at Donna Nook.
Inquisitive seals splashing around at the edge of the sandbank are a great action photography opportunity.
Prepare for the worst and you won't regret it. Photographing grey seals when you can't feel either your toes or fingers is no laughing matter. Wearing several thin warm layers gives maximum flexibility when trying to control body temperature at a comfortable level. Include two pairs of gloves, not to be worn together but just in case you drop one and it gets wet. Rubber Wellington boots is the best type of footwear, worn with a couple of pairs of socks. A wind and waterproof outer layer is essential, particularly if you plan on crawling around on the sand - and don't forget a hat.

Remember to leave room in your camera bag for food and drink, as it's a long walk back to the catering stall in the car park. If conditions are good you will want to be out as long as possible, and a little home comfort can make a big difference.

The keys to successful grey seal photography at Donna Nook are to be prepared, to be aware and to enjoy yourself.

Donna Nook detailed map.
Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.