When I first told my husband that I was travelling to Helgoland, he immediately started to tell me about the island’s fascinating military history & it’s having been used as a naval base during the two world wars. After WWII, the island was used as a bombing range – & most notably, a Royal Navy attack in 1947 created one of the most significant single non-nuclear detonations in history. Following British occupation, the island was finally returned to Germany in 1952. The history of the island is fascinating & well worth researching, but for my short time there it was all about the seals, the Seals of Helgoland.
The journey to Helgoland isn’t straightforward. From Heathrow we had the flight to Hamburg, then a car journey to Cuxhaven, & finally a boat to Helgoland. With stop-overs & connections, the travel time is quite lengthy, but as always, once you’re with the wildlife all that pales into insignificance.
Helgoland is a German archipelago in the North Sea made up of two tiny islands – Helgoland itself, & the little island of Düne where the seals can be found.
We made the short ferry journey across to Düne each morning. The island measures approx. 0.75 miles by 0.5 miles but within that small area there is a fascinating array of photographic opportunities with expanses of the sandy beach, pebble beach, dunes & huge boulders making up sea defence walls.
While on Düne we came across a couple of the wardens who patrol the area. They do a grand job ensuring safe access to the beach, & while their primary concern is protecting the seals of Helgoland, we found them to be very friendly & helpful. It is important to remember, though, that seals are wild animals & their environment must be respected, therefore a long lens is essential.
During the winter months, the weather can be quite harsh but the primary reason for coming at this time of year is to see the adorable pups.
The south beach is quite flat & sandy & from here you can see the colourful building facades of Helgoland in the distance.
The sea at South Beach is quite shallow & calm, but as you walk around to the north beach, there’s a notable change with the sea becoming much rougher. A massive sea wall provides much-needed protection between the north & south beach, & many seals can be found sheltering between the huge boulders.
When photographing the seals, it’s beneficial to get down to their level, so good waterproofs & wellie boots are essential attire. I chose not to use a tripod, but directly rested the camera on a small bean bag on the sand, taped up with a plastic covering for protection. This low-level aspect is excellent for achieving an ultra soft effect, which I love to do with my images.
Two types of seals can be found on Düne – the harbour seal (common seal) & the grey seal. They’re not always easy to tell apart, the main difference being the shape of the face – harbour seals have a short, round face, often described as being dog-like, where-as the grey seal is described as having a more ‘cat-like’ face!! It’s an excellent description as we often look at the young ones & gush over those great big puppy dog eyes!!
There is indeed no shortage of seals to photograph on Düne, but it’s important to take time & wander around. Isolating a single seal with a ‘clean’ background can be difficult – but, with so many seals to choose from it’s a fantastic problem to have! The dunes are quite picturesque & this beautiful seal with its mottled colouring became a favourite of mine in just a few days we were there.
In contrast, for the image below, it was impossible to isolate a single seal but instead it tells a story of seals making their home amongst the remnants of years gone by.
While walking along the beach, I kept looking at what I thought was a large pebble but there was something about it that was a little different. It was entirely still & round, but much larger than the other pebbles – enough to tempt me to walk a little closer. It was then it moved & raised its head! I didn’t expect to see an eider duck on the beach but what a fantastic treat.
Before visiting Helgoland, I wasn’t sure what to expect, the boat times eliminated the prospect of early morning sunrises, but as it happens, the weather was such that this wouldn’t have been an option anyway. In fact, the weather was probably our biggest challenge, but this didn’t detract from the array of fabulous photographic opportunities… & finally – for a wildlife photographer, trying to get a night shot in the pouring rain with a gale force wind is not easy, so the challenge is set … until the next time!
Join Jayne & Ian in 2018 to photograph the Seals of Helgoland for yourself
In November 2018, Jayne & Ian will be leading a Seals of Helgoland Photography Holiday for NaturesLens, specifically between the dates of 18th – 23rd November.
The cost is £1499 per participant which includes return transport between Hamburg Airport & Cuxhaven, an overnight stay in Cuxhaven on a dinner, bed & breakfast basis, ferry costs to reach Helgoland from Cuxhaven, luggage costs on the ferry, 4 nights accommodation on Helgoland itself on a dinner, bed & breakfast basis, 4 crossings to Düne from Helgoland & an overnight stay in the Radisson Blu Hotel at Hamburg Airport on the final night of the trip.