Why Essex is such a good spot to see seals
PUBLISHED: 08:47 20 July 2020 | UPDATED: 14:33 06 November 2020
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Andrew Fallan discovers the amazing habitat of harbour seals and why Essex is a very special place to see these most mesmerising of creatures
With their melancholy eyes, doglike demeanour and penetrating curiosity, it's hard to deny that there is something quite special about seals.
The common seal, also known as harbour seal, has a short, rounded muzzle, making it seem like a big, fat, friendly King Charles spaniel, while the other species found in the UK, the grey seal, has a somewhat longer snout, rendering it more akin to a quizzical German shepherd that isn't quite sure what to makeof you.
Grey seals in particular are also impressive animals, with males weighing anything from between 16 to nearly 50 stone. When they're not foraging for food, both species will loaf around on the shore in communal groups, which makes for quite a spectacle if you are able to visit one of their favoured haul-out sites.
Most of us are, however, unaware that both the Thames Estuary and the wider Essex coast are a nationally important habitat for seals with a surprisingly large number, perhaps up to several hundred or so, calling it home.
Like many people, I've got quite a soft spot for seals, any sighting of which induces a discernible tingle of excitement, especially if I'm able to get close to them.
Yet unless you own a kayak or count yourself among the sailing set, which I definitely do not, the only reliable - and, more importantly, responsible - way of doing this is by taking to the water on an organised excursion.
I therefore jumped at the chance of joining a specialist seal-watching boat trip last summer, departing from the small seaside town of Harwich, which nestles in the mouth of the Stour Estuary, just across the water from the bustling Port of Felixstowe.
One warm, sunny day in late June, we set sail under clear blue skies and against a dramatic backdrop of cranes and container ships, with Hamford Water National Nature Reserve, just north of Walton on the Naze, our intended destination.
Although I'm rather partial to a nice boat trip, especially if it involves wildlife and wild places, I have learnt the hard way that I am not only prone to seasickness, but that I have a phobia of deep water.
I therefore started to feel the tiniest stirrings of unease when we ventured a little further from land than I expected and things got slightly bumpy, at least by my lily-livered standards.
Thankfully, however, we seemed to be travelling in a big arc, which soon saw us motoring back towards the reassuring contours of dry land, before skirting the wonderfully wild coast of Horsey Island and, finally, making our way up a murky creek fringed with sloping banks of dark, sticky mud.
Shortly after entering the creek, the boat slowed down and I was soon greeted by the sight of a lone seal, almost looking as if it had been dumped on the shore by the retreating tide and eyeing us intently as we drifted on past.
The boat then stopped altogether, at which point I noticed about 40 of these charismatic creatures on the mudbank up ahead of us, gathered together like podgy sunbathers and including, to my excitement, a few babies, which are known as pups. Curiously, some of these seals, perhaps even most of them, were an eye-catching orangey-brown colour, which is due to iron oxide - that's rust to you and me - in the mud.
Looking on from our floating vantage point, a few seals would appear in the water, quite close to the boat, and then disappear, clearly very interested in us.
Meanwhile, up ahead and just in front of those lounging on the mud, the leaden shallows played host to a mother and pup, both of which I could see quite well with my binoculars (I had my own, though the skipper also handed out several pairs among my fellow punters).
At the time, I assumed that only common seals were found at Hamford Water, though I have since learnt that its sheltered tidal channels, tucked away amid a sprawling expanse of salt marsh, are also home to grey seals.
I was also unaware that this alluring coastal haven, with its maze of islands and inlets, is the setting for the aptly-titled Secret Water by Arthur Ransome, which is part of the famous Swallows and Amazons series of books.
Presumably due to the extremely low tide, though perhaps also so as not to disturb the seals, we weren't able to linger for too long.
The mother and pup that were in the water had now joined the other seals up on the mud, so just as we were preparing to leave, I focused in for one last look with my trusty binoculars - which, to my utter delight, revealed the doting mother dutifully lying on her side and the pup very much looking like it had started to suckle.
Prior to this trip, I had never even seen a baby seal, let alone witnessed such an intimate moment between a mother and her adorable infant, which was all the more special because nobody else saw it but me.
What's more, as the boat started to move off, I noticed another group of seals hauled out in an adjacent creek, some 15 to 20 in total, while closer by, as we continued on our way, other individuals would appear in the water all around us, with most, if not all of these, being inquisitive mothers, each with a pint-sized pup in tow.
I think it's fair to say that a more fitting end to what turned out to be quite a magical experience is difficult to imagine. In fact, I've already decided that I'm going to head back up to Harwich and do it all again this year.
Find out more
For more information on booking a seal-watching trip to Hamford Water this summer, go to www.sealwatching.co.uk