Last weekend, after living here for over 5 years, I went to see the seals at Winterton-on-Sea, and it was just as good as everyone said it would be.
Seal watching at Horsey, Winterton and Blakeney Point is one of the highlights the year in Norfolk. Seals can technically be seen on the county's beaches at any time of year, but from November to February the colonies really flourish, and Grey Seal families can be seen all over the coastline, as they come ashore to breed and feed the pups in their infancy.
Having been told that seal watching was one of the Things To Do around here, I thought - working for VisitNorwich now - it was high time that I went and saw these guys in real life. I had a rough idea what to expect: pictures of seal pups lurk on office calendars everywhere here, plus it's on Look East all the time over winter. Now seemed as good a time as any to go, plus I could make use of the new zoom lens I'd got for my camera.
We started the day right with a Gregg's breakfast, before wrapping ourselves in a meter-thick layer of scarf and waddling into the car to go and get lost on the A47.
** Now it might be worth noting here that we DID actually get lost on the A47, so check your sat navs are up to date chaps. This also applies if you're only of these canny analogue types that stoically navigates using a battered A-Z you picked up from Worsted Services in 2003; that's probably out of date now too. **
We arrived at Winterton-on-Sea (word on the street is it's prettier and less busy than Horsey) at about eleven. After figuring out where to park (if you drive past the ridge there is a very reasonably priced car park right by the sea), we pulled up and disembarked the car.
The first thing that struck me was how beautiful - and bleak - the coast was here. It looked like something straight out of a Scandinavian crime drama; the rugged, grey-green landscape looked just like Denmark, and the sea was cold and secretive. After re-applying 1243763 layers of clothes, we followed a handful of other people (and some very cute dogs) and made our way down to the beach which - at first glance - looked empty.
We walked for about 20 minutes, moving from grassy dune to soft sandy cliffs and then the pristine beach. No seals so far, but we did see a sweet sheepdog who kept bringing us pebbles to throw. It really is a beautiful beach: it stretches for miles, and feels very undisturbed. I can't wait to see what it's like in summer, but in January it felt calm and bracing - a good antidote to the Sausage roll I'd had from Greggs just a few hours before.
Then we spotted one. A smell grey head in the sea floating just above the water, a few meters from the shore. The seal bobbed in and out of the waves, checking out the beach every couple of seconds as he moved along away from us. He kind of reminded me of my mum looking for a parking space at a big Tesco.
Not long after, we saw our first beached pup, who was heroically making his way up to the dunes very slowly indeed. Upon seeing my first seal in full, I thought how impossible the task of moving around seemed for this little guy. From far away, the seal looked like a blurry rock, and looking closer you realise how small their front flippers are in comparison to their heavy, round bodies. Nevertheless, this seal knew where he was going, and - directed by one of the many volunteers (the wonderful 'Friends of Horsey Seals', who we'll get to later) - we gave him a wide berth and headed into the dunes to avoid running into any more lone seal pups.
Walking further down the beach, there were more and more pups to be spotted. And not even spotted: often we would walk through the dunes to find one of the seals lying on one of the many sandy pathways that wind through the grass. This sleepy fella was camouflaged so well and was so still that anyone on a mission up the hill would have missed him.
In order to protect these seals, wardens are stationed around the beach. This group of volunteers - from Friends of Horsey Seals - can be found from Winterton all the way through to Horsey, keeping an eye on the seal population and ensuring their safety. Their work is immensely valuable: seal pups, especially the ones that aren't yet fully weaned, are incredibly vulnerable, and if members of the public get too close to them (or get in between them and their mothers) the pups might not survive. The Monday after I visited, it was reported in the news that four seal pups around two weeks old had been found dead on the beach, prompting fears they might have been frightened to death. Speaking to one of the wardens that weekend, there had been four more seals found dead that same week, after humans had got in between them and their mothers. Other pups had to be taken to the RSPCA after their mothers refused to feed them.
Obviously visiting the seals is a lovely thing to do. It certainly beats sitting in your pyjamas watching Netflix, and it's such a nice day going out with a flask and enthusiasm to see wild animals in their natural home. If you're planning on going, these are the Friends of Horsey Seals' rules for taking care when watching the seals:
Stay a good distance away from the seals
Look out for seals in the dunes and give them a wide berth
Be careful – seals have a nasty bite
Keep dogs on a lead
Keep to marked viewing areas and respect the fencing
Remember grey seals are wild animals and should not be approached
Respect other visitors
If you're there to take photographs, make sure you take a decent camera with a good zoom. Guidelines say you should leave 3 meters minimum distance between you and the seals, which is especially important to remember as seals might not necessarily look distressed even if they are.
Towards Horsey we spotted this family, chilling out, probably talking about what to have for dinner that evening. When the pups are born, they have this warm white fur that you can see here, which isn't waterproof. When they're a bit older they moult and get their grey waterproof coat (like the seal below), and have to learn to catch food and live at sea.
Having been out for almost 2 hours, we decided to head back to the car to thaw. We'd had a great time, and were glad we'd got there early(ish) as by the time we left it was getting busy.
You can still see the grey seals over the next month, as the last of the families raise their young on the beaches. Just search for Winterton, Horsey or Blakeney Point on google, or head to the VisitNorfolk site where you'll be able to find more information. Common Seals have their young around June and August, so it's not long to wait until more seals pay a visit to the Norfolk Coast, and you can see them again. Whenever you go though, do take care and respect their space - seals can be camera shy too!
Images: Isabel Johnson
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