It was one of those winter days where soft light suffuses the air. The golden light from a sun still low in the sky despite the late hour of the morning, softened even further by hazy white clouds. Standing at the top of of a dune, spiky green grass poking up through the sand, I gaze out at the silky, blue, calm sea that stretches to a horizon lost in haze. There is only the slightest of breezes. Small waves roll gently onto the beach below and scattered along the sand, from the gentle surf to the foot of the dunes, and even within them, are the recumbent shapes of grey seals. From big, dark bull, smaller mottled females in lighter shades of browns and greys, to silvery grey, spotty older pups, right the way to white fluffy pups just a few days old. As far as the eye can see right the way up and down the beach there are seals. From Horsey Gap, all the way to Winterton, this stretch of the Norfolk Coast is one of two major breeding sites for grey seals in the area, and is one of the largest on the UK. Up to 2,000 pups will be born on this stretch alone.
The beach plays out the full soap opera of the seals lives. Life and death played out on the golden wind swept sands.
Expectant females lie in wait for their turn at motherhood; new born pups lie in the sand, umbilical cord still attached with a yellowish hue to their fluffy fur; older pups with brilliant white fur curl up next to mum, suckling the fat rich milk that will see them pile on the pounds needed to survive. Pups are around 15kg at birth, gaining 2kg a day before reaching 45kg by the time they are weaned. A bolder individual belly flops up the beach, heading for a big male before deciding at the last minute not to bother a slumbering beast. Still older pups, the white fur rubbed away to reveal silvery, grey, spotty fur, enjoying the sun before hunger will eventually force them out to sea for food. Dotted here and there are the occasional bodies of pups, half covered in drifting sand, those that did not make it. 40% won’t. Big males patrol the beach and quarrel about position and females. In the surf, the cycle of life starts again. An altercation between a male and female, she displays her disapproval at his advances, water foams around them until she finally acquiesces.
Seems an odd time of year to be bringing new life into the natural world. Long dark, cold nights, stormy seas, battering winds, although today all seems balmy and calm, all manner of weather thrown at them. Why now? And yet, having had the plentiful summer to feed up on fish, laying down the reserves of energy that will be needed to feed a pup for three weeks while eating little themselves, it may actually be the perfect time.