Digested read: went to the seal side and saw loads of seals. Excellent! Donna Nook certainly gets my seal of approval. Can you seal what I’ve done there? I know, genius!
Do you ever let yourself get stuck into a bit of a rut? No? Just me then. Well, good for you. Speaking personally, sometimes I realise I’ve got into the habit of doing the same things, the same way and forgotten somehow to embrace new experiences and new adventures. When I have worked overseas, I’ve always made a conscious effort to try new things and take opportunities when they present themselves because that chance may never come my way again. However, if I’m honest, latterly I’ve taken for granted some remarkable and exciting things that are practically on my doorstep. Because I could in theory go any time, I go no time, and years pass by and I’ve still not been to Heeley City Farm yet for example, or Kelham Island Museum and I’ve been living in Sheffield for umpteen years now. That’s pretty poor. Note to self, must be more proactive from hereon in. Well, revitalised and reinvigorated by my recent sojourn to Berlin parkrun (which I haven’t blogged about yet but will, so try to contain yourself til then) I have a new resolve to say ‘yes’ to as many new experiences as I can. That way new adventures lie, and oh my, talking of lying, here was certainly some massive lying around going on. And it was brilliant. Let me explain.
Oh, and technically, this might not be a running blog post as such, more a potential run recce post, the conclusion of which is, you can’t really run there, so what are you going to do about that then? Shoot me? Hah! I reckon you won’t go through with that, you’ll just roll your eyes and skip this post, and such is your prerogative. Mind you, shame if you did, you’ll miss the cute baby seals photos that come later on, but your choice, do as you will. Plus, maybe you too should try something new now and again, like reading a non-running blog post, just because you can. Or not, it’s up to you, obvs. Glad we have cleared that up.
It all began with my recce buddy messaging me to say, ‘thinking about going out to Donna Nook to see the seals wondered if you wanted to come along’. Naturally, my immediate reaction to this was incomprehension. Where on earth can you get to see seals in reasonable travelling distance from Sheffield? Also, isn’t Lorna Doone in Exmoor or somewhere anyway?
Google was helpful, I learned that Donna Nook is apparently well-known for its population of grey seals visiting in the winter months, as well as it’s array of bird life. Not that well know I’d venture, I’ve never heard of it, but hey ho. Sounded promising. A quick search for directions would alert me to how far away it was, let me see – 27 hours if walking. Hmm, well, my recce buddy hadn’t specified a mode of transport, but I was going to put my neck on the line and say that didn’t think an ultra walk there and back would be compatible with her work rota, so hopefully we’d be cheating and taking advantage of an internal combustion engine to facilitate our arrival. OK, count me in! I shall indeed take up this random opportunity that has presented itself. It will be an adventure. Fun will be had. I’ll see the sea!
A brief exchange of planning emails, ‘don’t forget your binoculars‘. I always get really excited seeing wildlife, particularly in its natural habitat, but freely acknowledge sometimes I have endured lengthy vigils with little return by way of any practical evidence of creatures in their habitat. Squinting into distant trees wondering if that shadowy form is indeed a rare, roosting bird or just a plastic bag caught up in a tree. I’ve been there. Binoculars are a boon on such occasions, mustn’t forget them.
My recce guide and buddy was also transport manager (again), so I abdicated from all or any responsibility for getting there, beyond being ready (ish) at the appointed hour. So it was at 10.35 a.m. I was scooped up from outside my house, and off we went towards Grimsby. It took a couple of hours, and honestly, it isn’t the most interesting of drives, but fortunately, we know how to make our own entertainment and managed to talk for the entire drive, walk and drive home, and still have topics we forgot to cover. It’s quite a skill. Anyway, time went quickly.
We got a bit confused in the latter stages. The landscape is flat and featureless, I might complain about the hills of Sheffield in terms of having to haul myself up them but personally I find the low-lying exposed coastal plains of North Lincolnshire, to be borderline depressing. I don’t know how people do their running training in such landscapes, I suppose you learn to appreciate other qualities, like the moody changing skies, or the magical network of dykes. I also was struck by how little ground cover there was everywhere, not only does this mean the wind whipping across the land must be relentless at certain times of year, but there is no bit of modesty covering vegetation behind which a caught-short runner may hope to hide to relieve themselves. The only option would be to launch yourself into one of the dykes, but they are deep trenches from which you more than likely would never be able to extract yourself unaided. We didn’t see many people around at all. My recce buddy said it was because they were all most probably at work what with it being a week day and all, but I reckon anyone who ventured out in the dark, or carelessly would end up toppling into and then trapped for all eternity in those deep, flat walled dykes, scratching at the sides, unable to escape. Thousands of them, that’s probably what makes the land round there so fertile now I come to think about it. And they wouldn’t mention it on their tourist guides now would they, so of course there’s no evidence one way or the other, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Anyway, after getting a bit lost, we resorted to using satnav and eventually found some signs to
Lorna Doone, Donna Summer, Donna Nook and it was indeed incredibly easy to find. Excitingly, after a bit you start to see signs which say ‘to the seals!’, encouraging you to follow a particular one way route in, which is exactly what we did.
The blah de blah, for those of you too weak or lacking inclination to click on the Donna Nook, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust link for further information is:
Donna Nook National Nature Reserve
Donna Nook covers more than 10km (6.25 miles) of coastline between Grainthorpe Haven in the north and Saltfleet in the south where it borders the Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe National Nature Reserve. Every November and December, grey seals come to the Donna Nook coastline to give birth to their pups near the sand dunes; a wildlife spectacle which attracts visitors from across the UK.
Visitors should be aware that the Ministry of Defence still maintains part of the area as a bombing target range and under no circumstances should anyone enter the bombing area when red flags are flying. However, most of the dune area is accessible at all times.
But there’s loads more information on the website so you should check it out really.
Anyway, we followed the corridor of yellow cones, and ended up in a small free car park, it was pretty full, but we managed to find a space. There is a larger, paying car park ‘with portaloos’ which we over-shot, but is also an option. We wrapped up warm and made our way to an information booth to check out our options.
Neither of us had any idea at all about what to expect. All part of the excitement of discovery. However, I will admit my stomach flipped a bit when I saw there was a 6 mile stretch of seaside making up the reserve. I was up for a walk, but hadn’t quite factored in a 6 mile out and 6 mile back. It was quite nippy out, and it had taken a good two hours to get there. Oh well, let’s check it out.
We turned the corner to start the walk along to the seal viewing area and within a micro-second saw this:
Job done! Seal spotted. We could legitimately have turned around and gone home at that point as it was mission accomplished!
Honestly, it was hilarious, there were seals everywhere, no binoculars required. The reserve is now long-established, and the seals who arrive from late October through to December to breed are apparently completely habituated to the humans traipsing along a fairly unsubstantial fence line that keeps people and the grey seals apart. It is a photographer’s dream. They are just there. Littering the coast line like so many dumped body bags inanimate in the mud flats.
They are absolutely gorgeous, but not the most animate of animals. They really don’t look like they should survive out of water. They basically loll about, the new-born pups feeding and laying down fat as their mothers sacrifice their blubber stores. The males (recognisable for being larger and uglier according to the signs) hang around ready to mate with the females as soon as they are receptive again after calving. So you stare at these gorgeous torpedo shaped animals just lying there. It’s weird though, because some of the young pups have made their way right up to the fence line.
There are in touching distance, although obviously you absolutely must not do that. Mothers will abandon their young if they pick up strange smells, and you might get bitten, which would serve you right quite frankly if you did succumb to the temptation of poking a finger through. On that subject, I spent a month working at an animal sanctuary in Zimbabwe where there was a hyena called Crunch, who twice bit off the fingers of visitors who contrary to stated advice, had poked them through the chicken wire of the not very well constructed enclosure. I have zero sympathy for them as both were adults, and well, the hyena was called Crunch for goodness sake, what did they think might happen? Health and safety hadn’t made it to Chipangali. A volunteer got killed by a lion the year before, but that was different, and very sad. The lion was shot, it wasn’t its fault. The hyena lives on as far as I know, probably keeping its eyes peeled for finger food when the opportunity presents itself.
Anyway, same here, don’t encroach on the local wildlife’s territory – there’s a sign to warn you too:
People are idiots tough. At one point along the line someone had lobbed in some turnips and a cabbage which was rather random. Who a) thinks that’s part of the diet of a seal, especially one that isn’t eating anything at all for several weeks on account of it being the calving season and b) who brings a couple of turnips and a cabbage with them along on an outing to the seaside on the off-chance they might come in handy for something?
Well, we had a partial answer, it was not necessarily people thinking that all that weight loss was part of a genuine aspiration to be ‘slimmer of the year’ and that adoption of the cabbage soup diet might help (explanation of this comes later), but it might be attributable to the fact that a local farmer has set up a turnip and cabbage stall in the larger car park with the portaloo facilities. This shows entrepreneurial endeavour and optimism. To be honest, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to combine turnip shopping and seal viewing, but then again, I didn’t know it was an option, now you do, you can learn from me and bring along your re-useable turnip bag and cash for any such transaction. No, don’t try to thank me, you are welcome, I’m just happy to help.
Seriously though, just leave them be. And keep your turnips and cabbages to yourself.
Still, you walk along the fence line, periodically pausing to gaze:
and really, the only problem is identifying which of these slumbering seals is the most gorgeous. You think you have seen the most wide-eyed beauteous pup imaginable, and then a few feet on is another even more appealing or beautifully patterned grey seal. Each one has unique patterning it seems, oh, and the noises they make. Oh my gawd, they sound human, they really do. Slightly whiney human ‘muuuuuuuuuuuuuuum, muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuum’ pleading it’s true, but astonishing.
To illustrate my point, here is more cuteness overload:
Basically, you’ll either get it or you wont. To the untrained eye they may look like inanimate, lumpen masses. But to those who have but eyes to see they are captivating. A celebration of supine gloriousness. However, there is more to it than that. If you stand and watch for a while, you start to appreciate there are subtle interactions going on all around. Whilst the older pups might be left alone for a couple of hours to, well just, lard up basically – the younger ones need only emit the tiniest of squeaks and its grey seal mum snaps her head up alert and responsive to check all is well.
You can tell the newborns, partly by their proximity to bloody afterbirth, always a clue, and partly because of their yellow fur, stained from amniotic fluid, and partly because they have empty creases of skin where they have yet to fill out. Like the aftermath of extreme weight loss, only for grey seals, you need these flaps of empty skin so they can be filled, the fat is needed, to help them on their way. Seeing such loveliness gives a whole new perspective on fat. Here it is glorious. The plumper the better, a silken layer indeed. Probably more than one to be fair…. No wonder the Victorians associated plumpness with health, attractiveness, and a happy outlook.
It was a pretty educational walk. There were information signs along the way. Quite helpful ones aimed at adults (presumably) with detail about the behaviour and life-cycle of the seals.
I was less comfortable with the child-friendly signs. I mean, I get what they were trying to do, but really, did they need to draw pictures of the seals wearing clothes? It was a shame as generally the guardianship of the colony was excellent, enthusiastic volunteers were on hand to answer questions as well as keep the colony safe, but I hate that sort of anthropomorphism. There was one sign proclaiming a mother seal as ‘slimmer of the year’ a reference to how much weight they lose during these weeks of birthing and suckling when they don’t eat anything. I was so annoyed I didn’t take a picture, and now I’m annoyed with myself because I didn’t because they I’d be able to illustrate to you what was annoying me. How annoying. Here are some others though. No, the pups don’t wear nappies:
Then again, I did quite like some of the quiz questions along the way, so I suppose that makes me either a hypocrite, or a complex being of hidden contradictions, I’m going with the latter.
I know! Funny. Genuinely made me laugh! Then again, I am easily amused, as well as easily annoyed.
I learned loads though. For example, did you know there are occasionally jet black seal pups? No? Me neither, but we saw some, and I asked a volunteer about them and they are a thing, fairly rare, but a few each year. They were also particularly gorgeous, albeit like black cats, quite hard to photograph well.
We saw all the stages of life, some quite graphically. The new-born who had somehow hauled itself away from the bloody pool in which it emerged:
The latched on enthusiastic suckling of the pups:
Seeing off over enthusiastic suitors, with a lot of seal specific swearing by the sound of things:
When the time is right some fairly graphic coupling, these grey seals are pretty well endowed it seems. Like I said, it was very educational.
Inevitably, the circle of life is in evidence. Further away from the fence line a flurry of activity of birds betrayed a dead pup being picked over by scavengers. Some losses are inevitable, it’s sad of course, but it happens.
A.Maz.Ing though, and who knew it was all but a couple of hours away from the middle of Sheffield.
We wandered back and forth for a couple of hours, and truthfully, were it not so cold, might yet have lingered longer. The stretch with a viewing platform is very short though, 500 metres maybe? Then a red flag flying indicated that much of the sands is out-of-bounds as it’s a live military base with shooting going on, and planes carrying out exercises overhead. We didn’t see any today, though the volunteer warden told us that surprisingly, the seals are unconcerned by such activities, I suppose over the decades they’ve been coming here they have become habituated to that too, unlikely as it seems.
Not much running, or even walking went on.
However, a visual gag (well, I did warn you I was easily amused) awaited us at the far end of the viewing area. There are model baby seals near information points, that encourage you to make a donation to support the work of the wildlife trust. I wanted to photograph one, as you do, and right behind it was a real seal pup, doing exactly the same thing! How cool is that?
I don’t know why I was quite so surprised, the pup was only following instructions…
So that was that. Time to go. Hard-ish to tear ourselves away, but then again, we were peckish by now.
We made a donation and went on our way. Suitably impressed by all we’d seen.
FYI there was a catering van there doing coffees and sausage baps type things, but we thought we would find somewhere better. We didn’t really. It’s a strange drive, miles and miles of pretty desolate amenity-free roads. Oh well. It was still very much worth the trip, but top tip, take a packed lunch and a thermos flask. Also a decent camera or a friend with one in lieu of that would be even better.
Journey home took about three days, might have been quicker walking. Absolutely no idea why, it can’t have been rush hour continuously from 3.00 p.m. to 8.00 p.m. We did stop for petrol and a late lunch, but even so.
Still, the conclusion is, this was ace, unexpected and an extraordinary wildlife spectacle for them as like seals, which I do, a great deal. If you don’t like seals, then maybe give this a miss. So thank you imaginative recce buddy and now tour guide. That was EPIC!
Maybe you can seal yourself there sometime. Check for the right time of year, and don’t tell too many people, it’s a precious sanctuary to treasure.
Now I’m off to find a run route…. preferably one with some decent hills. But while I’m running(ish) I’ll be remembering this.
Sigh, we do indeed live in a world of wonders. Let’s embrace it.