The chill of a pre-dawn December morning nipped at uncovered faces as our small group padded quietly out of the village. Gentle whispers of snatched conversation and the soft call of a winter robin licked the ears above the deep rhythms of distant breaking waves.
Out onto the dunes, muscles finding warmth now as light seeps into the sky, diffused by a covering of low cloud.
All paths are leading north.
A silent barn owl quarters the scrub ahead on our left, stooping and rising in it’s silent hunting dance. Dune mountains appear to our right, the sea’s deep bass line rumbles, a presence felt but not yet seen. The path now turns towards the rising marram dunes, snaking between dune slacks and over grassy hillocks and on through discovered amphitheatres of calm. An icy sea-breeze touches the face as the ascent to higher ground continues. Reaching the sand ridge we stand with blinking, watering eyes and cast our gaze across a boulder strewn beach that stretches far into the distance.
As eyes adjust, the realisation comes that some of the boulders are moving. Further off, great slug-like masses of blubber heave themselves through the surf, then onto the dry, soft sand. Gentle calls and wails drift up from the sand below at a pitch different to the crashing waves. Looking more closely, creamy white bundles of new-born pups, all skin and bone, are dotted along the tide line, some accompanied by their mothers, others alone and resting.
We sat and set up microphones from our vantage point on the dunes as light grew into the day, then relaxed, headphones clamped on bobble-hatted heads……….. and listened.
Time passed, but the scene changed little. Mothers returned from fishing trips to their youngsters high on the beach, some barely hours old, still recovering from the trauma of the night and surrounded by remnants of afterbirth. In the three weeks following birth, before they venture into the cold North Sea, the pups will gain in the region of 30lbs/60kg from the fat-rich milk of their nursing mothers.
Turnstones picked their way across the sand looking for titbits, as gulls squabbled in the surf for larger morsels. Further along the sea wall a wave of twittering snow buntings settled to drink from a seeping concrete seam. A large grey seal male makes his presence known on the beach, lets loose a deep-bellied bellow, though he received no more in response than the guttural repost of a protective female when he came too close to a pup. These breeding grounds, or rookeries as they are known, are not the fight-fests of the grey seal’s larger cousins the elephant seals, whose males aggressively battle for dominance in bloody beach wars. Instead males patrol the sands throughout this period, waiting for females to come in to season, some two or three weeks after they have given birth.
After an hour or more, bodies and limbs finally succumbed to the cold. Rumbling stomachs suggested urgent return to civilisation for sustenance, so we packed up our gear and melted back into the dunes, a special dawn with enchanting wildlife implanted in the memory.
Visiting the grey seals on the Norfolk coast is a wonderful experience, whether in the spring and summer by boat from Blakeney or Morston Quay, or in the breeding season at either Horsey, or up on the Lincolnshire Coast at Donna Nook.