Behind the image — Bull grey seal in the waves

I have always had a love of the sea and the animals that inhabit it. So many emotions can be related to the movements of the sea and I find that being in or near water, I become instantly calm and I think about all of the wonders that lay beneath the waves. The waters surrounding the UK are very abundant all year round, and the pupping season for grey and harbour seals are just one of the spectacles that can be witnessed along the whole of the British coastline.

I have visited the Norfolk coast a number of times since an early age, but I rarely had the chance to see the population of grey seals that eat and slumber on the beaches and rocky coastlines throughout the year. On this occasion, I had the opportunity to board a small passenger boat that travelled out from the River Glaven, to the popular seal viewing spot at Blakeney Point. This location is now home to the largest grey seal colony with over 3,000 pups born each winter, so there was a definite chance that I would spot these wonderful animals on land from a safe distance on the water. Travelling up the river out to the harbour, cormorants and barnacle geese were resting and preening along the edge of the mud flats, and the first glimpses of grey seals were already present. Black blobs floated on the surface, and as they got closer to the boat they became the melon shaped silhouette of bull grey seals curiously looking at the boats that floated through their territory. They swam parallel to the boat before diving below the waves and reappearing further up ahead, as if they were showing the way to the colony. As the boat approached the mouth of the river, on a small spit of land, I saw the first of the female seals that had hauled themselves onto land ready for the imminent birth of their pup, and more individuals appeared dotted along the beach as the boat continued to move along the edge of the spit. The odd individuals eventually became a huge mass of grey seals, all hauled out on land after being pushed up by the tide and I immediately saw little dramas happening between the males and females. Some males lunged themselves towards the females waiting to give birth and the expectant mothers would do their best to fend the males off, or the larger males fought with other males defending their spot on land, and of course, there were pups being born.

It was a whole 360 degree scope of sights and sounds. It was difficult at first to decide where to point my camera, and I knew I had limited time before the boat would head out of the harbour back to the docks. Another factor that I contended with at the time was the angle of the sun. Because it was so low in the sky, I had to register when the sun was behind me or in front to avoid glare down the lens or having a subject too backlit. The intermittent cloud resulted in me working with an automatic setting the majority of the time. To begin with, I photographed what I saw on land and was delighted to see a new born pup born within the hour resting close to its mother, with its white fur coat still wet. As the boat began to turn around, I then focused on what was happening in the water, where almost all of the male seals were residing while the females occupied most of the spit. The males were constantly curious of the boat that was drifting near their land, and at almost every turn there was a head poking above the waves; their noses sniffing the air and their huge black eyes scanning the boat and its occupants. One large bull was visible for longer than the younger males, possibly because he was accustomed to the sights of the small passenger boats. He was facing directly at me and the camera for so long, maintaining constant eye contact as it kept its head above the rolling waves. He was illuminated by the afternoon sun and was enveloped by the dark blue of the ocean. It was so close I could make out the small battle scar on its nose, created perhaps by another male or a female defending her pup. Making that eye contact was a surreal experience, almost like the mammal was communicating and engaging with my presence. That is one of the key features throughout my work, where I want the subject’s eyes to be visible; it’s even better when they are staring directly down the lens and that strong connection is felt.

Bull grey seal off the Norfolk Coast — Canon 100–400mm