Secret seals of the south-east
Guest post: Autumnwatch guest presenter and Adventure Team producer Richard Taylor-Jones is on the trail of one of Britain's least known seal populations, which live in some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Astonishingly, this summer a young common seal pup was washed up on the beach
I grew up in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. As a child I would spend hours on the beach, but never once did I see a seal. Not in a million picnics did one ever make an appearance.
Imagine my surprise, when on moving back to my childhood home two years ago, I saw a seal swim past the front window of my seafront house. Then, even more astonishingly, this summer a young common seal pup was washed up on the beach. It seemed that seals were breeding here too.
On Goodwin Sands, our very own desert island
Enough was enough. I needed to know more. Could there really be seals living successfully amongst the busy shipping lanes of the English Channel? With a bit of arm twisting at Autumnwatch HQ I persuaded the bosses to let me delve deeper into the secret seals of the south-east.
After a bit of background research (this didn't take long - these seals are seriously under-studied) it was quite simple to think of the three films I could make.
The first is about a colony of seals that local boatmen suggested could be found out on the Goodwin Sands.
The Goodwins are a well known group of tidal sand banks, but well known for all the wrong reasons. These banks, six miles off the coast of Deal, are a notorious shipwreck site where an incalculable numbers of lives have been lost.
We couldn't risk using a boat to reach them in the autumn as bad weather could easily put pay to any safe landing. The only guaranteed way of filming on the sands, no matter what the weather, was going to be a helicopter.
Ironically the weather couldn't have been better the day we decided to film. The helicopter was, however, booked and you never know when conditions might turn, so we stuck to plan A.
Once we were up and flying the reality of the situation dawned on me. I was responsible for a) the safety of a film crew b) putting together a decent film and c) trying to talk sense to camera. Altogether a very daunting prospect. I was mixed with a whole range of emotions.
Suddenly this nice little jaunt at home filming seals was turning into an adrenaline-fueled, action adventure. Not the usual Autumnwatch offering, that's for sure.
Bleak, desolate, dangerous and dazzlingly beautiful
Arriving at the sands was astonishing. It felt like we had been dropped off on our very own desert island. For somewhere so close to my home, it felt like I may as well have been on Mars. With the helicopter disappearing above my head I stared in awe at the landscape around me. Bleak, desolate, dangerous and dazzlingly beautiful.
We had seen some seals as we flew over and headed off to find them, slightly uneasy about the reports of quicksand being common out here. But it wasn't long before we were greeted by a raft of bobbing heads in the surf. It was a beautiful site that I shall never forget. They were grey seals.
From that moment I had about an hour with them in the stunning early morning light. All fear of the situation disappeared and I was scooped up into enjoying the moment. Even when the helicopter came back I wanted to stay. The idea of mermaids luring sailors to their doom sprang to mind. These were Sirens of the Sands for sure. One day I will return to their alluring call. Of that I'm sure.
My second film involved taking a public sea safari trip on a fantastic power boat from Dover to watch our other British species, the common seal. The tourists on board the trip were clearly over the moon about discovering seals in their back yard, and the seals put on quite a display with plenty of leaping about.
I was with a couple who had lived in Kent for 40 years, and they had no idea the animals where here. They enjoyed the trip so much it was their second time out in just a few months. Importantly for me I discovered that there was a breeding colony at Pegwell Bay. Being only three miles from my house, it's possible that this is where the pup I found came from.
Pegwell Bay, a nature reserve by accident
As you watch the nearby busy main road and planes landing at the airport in the background you wonder why they chose such a busy place to set up home. The estuary used to be a World War One port, so totally out of bounds to anyone but the MOD. The port shut after the wars, but the land remained in MOD hands and subsequently was never developed. It became a nature reserve by accident. A bit of 'accidental nature' as I like to call it.
The theme of my last film was based around that common seal pup washed up on the beach outside the house. I called up British Divers Marine Life Rescue when I found it and they came along to assess the situation. It was clear the pup was undernourished and abandoned, so we whisked it off to Mallydams Wood RSPCA rescue centre.
Richard Thompson, the centre's Wildlife Manager, said it was far from being a one-off event. An increasing number of pups were being admitted to the centre each year. I thought it worthwhile putting the spotlight on the hard work that the centre does to get these animals back on their feet (or flippers to be precise), and also to see if this increase in numbers could shed any light on the health of the seal population in the south-east.
What I wasn't expecting was the responsibility of releasing a seal pup. We took quite a large fat pup, who was certainly ready to get back to sea, out onto Pett Level beach. Here I was told to open his carry cage to let him go. For what seemed like an age, I desperately struggled to open the door, but it wouldn't budge! Most embarrassing with a crowd of people, a TV crew and a disgruntled seal pup watching. But help was at hand. Eventually the pup got his freedom.
I thought maybe making these films would help put together a broad picture of these seals lives in the south-east. They have done that, but it's a very broad picture indeed, the tip of an iceberg of a story. There are still so many questions to be answered about the seals' lives, some of them very basic. For one, no one really even knows how many there are here.
The young released seal pup disappeared into the surf, at the start of a journey into a new life in the wild. I feel, like him, I am at the start of a journey too, a journey to unlock more of the secrets of the seals of the south-east.
Watch Richard's seal films on Autumnwatch, 8.30pm Friday 4 November on BBC Two.