We slowly walk on the sand, an icy wind cuts our faces like a knife. The November sky is surprisingly crystal clear here in Norfolk, and the sun is setting west behind the dunes. In the parking lot we have been told that the seals today are resting just a couple of miles away, and we approach them walking along the seashore.
It’s 2 p.m. and on the wind beaten beach there are few people, almost all walking their leashed dogs. We seem to be the only tourists around.
The first seals we spot are swimming in the water: a male and a female playing and courting, looking at us from time to time to decipher our intentions. We leave them immediately alone and continue along the sea line, until we come across the first group lying on the sand: about fifteen gray seals that rest after a day of swimming, mating and fishing, almost all sleeping or enjoying the last rays of sun. The males are huge, while the females have almost all a white pup at their side.
Just at a two-hour drive from London, Mother Nature stages one of its thousands shows: it is the gray seals’ breeding season and Norfolk is one of the regions that these animals prefer to give birth to their pups. Small, white and soft pups cover the beach, shouting raspy calls to the mothers to be fed and suckling greedily from their nipples.
The signs warn passersby to keep at a safe distance, at least 3 meters away, but during our two days in Norfolk we will learn a lot more about these animals.
Above all, we will have the incredible opportunity to witness the birth of two pups: an exciting and moving event that we would never have imagined to be able to see. We were literally left speechless and amazed by wonder.
The eyes of the newborns, giant, wide and full of astonishment, their fur still covered in amniotic fluid and their clumsy movements will be the most precious gifts of Norfolk.
HOW TO BEHAVE
As with any other wild animal, even with seals it is necessary to show respect for their territory. Never get too close to not make them feel threatened and to avoid any kind of risk: they are faster than you think and have very sharp teeth, so much so that in other regions (like in Ontario) the suggested safe distance is 100 meters.
It is advisable to be particularly careful during some specific seasons such as the mating one, when they are less tolerant to territory intrusions and can more easily show signs of stress, discomfort and aggression. It is possible, for example, that mothers cannot breastfeed because they are disturbed by visitors (putting the pup’s survival at risk) or that they are not able to rest to recover the energy they need to take care of the offspring. Young seal pups are extremely vulnerable and only 50% of them survive their first year.
Also, never walk between a cow and its pup, because it could lead the mother to abandon it. Human interference could have drastic consequences: be responsible. In January 2018 4 pups were found dead on a Norfolk beach, probably because their mothers were scared off by people or dogs: this is the kind of news we should NEVER read.
THE ROLE OF THE MALES
During the breeding season, it often happens to see a bull next to a cow with her pup. It might seem a protective proximity, but in reality the gray seal males have no parental role. They wander around females only to mate again, risking, among other things, to crush the pups without even noticing it.
On the other hand, females will be ready for mating again only when the pup becomes independent (in about 4-6 weeks). In the meantime, they will have a hard time keeping the horny males at bay with menacing roars and bites. On the beaches it is not difficult to identify the more stubborn bulls: they are those with a bleeding neck for the bites of females (or of other males they fought with for dominance).
WHERE TO SPOT THE SEALS IN NORFOLK
The place we recommend is Blakeney Point, a natural reserve that can be accessed by boat with organized tours for small groups. In this way you will take advantage of the insights provided by some knowledgeable National Trust guides, who will give you very useful information on the experience you are living. There are two companies that organize these excursions: Beans Boat Trip and Temple Seal Trip.
There are other beaches where you can see the seals, but the option with the National Trust guides is always to be preferred: because it gives you the opportunity to learn, because your experience takes place in a safe environment (safe for you and the seals as well) and also because it is a way to contribute to conservation.
For example, we found out that females can accept mating and then put the pregnancy on hold for three months while waiting for their body to be 100% ready. During the breastfeeding period, in fact, the mother can lose up to 65 kg and is unable to face a new pregnancy straight away.
WHEN TO SEE THE SEALS IN NORFOLK
Seals can be seen all year round in Norfolk but if you want to see the pups you have to go from June to August (common seal breeding season) or from November to January (gray seal breeding season).
Obviously, during the winter there are far less tourists and the experience is much more authentic.
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