After a lifetime of visiting family in Norfolk, I discovered last year that in 2001 its flat blustery North Sea coastline had become a mini oasis to a group of 25 grey and common seals. Without any natural predators they’d grown to become England’s largest colony and seal spotting had become a local honeypot attraction to young and old on the ever growing 6-km long shingle & marsh dunes that make up Blakeney National Nature Reserve. It’s incredibly popular for birdwatchers too as it’s one of Europe’s most important nesting sites that includes Sandwich and Little Terns.
Almost 2400 seal pups were born over the winter,so we thought we were in with a good chance of spotting some of the 500 known permanent residents on the ridge and tidal flats. There are plenty of boat companies offering seal spotting, we chose the family-run Bishops Boats, whose ticket prices £10 per adult and £5 for a child, cash only! You have to buy the tickets in Blakeney, (there is a free ATM & post office in the Spar shop that is next door to an excellent crab and fresh fish shop), shoot out the car and buy tickets at the quay and then drive (or walk) up to Morston Quay,where there is £4.00 car park fee unless you are a National Trust member.
Seals spend two thirds of their lives out hunting for cod, sand eels, octopi and squid, when lactating their rich diet ensures their pups can quickly add up to 2 kg a day in weight to survive the cold waters. This could explain why we only saw one seal on the beach basking that day, but lots and lots popping their head out of the water for their next big breath to dive up to 200 m and stay underwater for up to 15 minutes. Although a little bit nervous of the boat initially Little A came round as we pretended to spot mermaids in those grey waters. The Captain and his seal spotter were friendly, allowing each side of the boat plenty of time to view seals and birds. Despite being calm there was still plenty of splash, avoid sitting at the front of the boat if you don’t want to get wet!
Sure to bring a belly laugh from Little A is the comically named Granny’s Toenails (bird’s-foot-trefoil) , flowers which the reserve is rich in but we’ll wait till they are out on our next visit.
How to Spot a Grey Seal from a Common Seal
Grey Seals have a longer muzzle than the short rounded muzzle of the Common Seal who have large v-shaped nostrils that meet at the bottom. Grey Seals latin name Halichoerus grypus means hooked nose and you can spot the bulls by their their roman shaped noses.
There’s a great ‘Differences Between Grey & Common Seals‘ fact-sheet for little ones to print out and take along provided by The Mammal Society that visually illustrates the differences between Grey and Common Seals.
Great watercolour sketches of the seal and bird wildlife on Blakeney National Nature Reserve can be viewed in the book, The Long,WIld Shore by artist James MacCullum.
Bishops Boats run daily, their weekend boats at 11.00 for an hour’s seal spotting cruise, they recommend reserving your tickets in advance as they are always booked out on the day.
Official website for the National Trust’s Blakeney National Nature Reserve