Every moment matters” – A trope that feels more true today as I charge eastward, attempting to reach my destination before the sun kisses the horizon. It’s the start of winter, a time when tide and time conspire to ruin the best-laid plans of mice and photographers! 

Ravenscar sounds and feels like an imagined location, more fitting for a Tolkien novel than a real place. Peter Jackson too, would be impressed. Dramatic, wild and with a descent that is not for the faint of heart, Ravenscar makes the perfect spot for an adventure. * Cue Lord of the Rings music *


As I pull up for my first time at this mythical location, the sun starts to break through.  To the North, Robin Hood’s Bay turns into a golden El Dorado. It’s all I can do to resist its magnetic and almost unnatural pull. My treasure lies along a less trodden path. 


Steep, muddy, more direct but also more ambiguous, is the route I take. I try to take extra care and resist the urge to rush as my excitement begins to bubble over. It would be easy to have a serious tumble here and the emergence of a coast guard helicopter, be it part of a drill or not, sharpens the senses. The treasure that lies below these sharp and fragile cliffs is one of the UK’s greatest natural wonders: a grey seal colony and its breeding season.


The grey seals that live in our British waters represent around 40% of the world’s grey seal population. While much of our wildlife tends to breed in the warmer, more bountiful months, these ocean-dwelling creatures can be witnessed up and down the East coast giving birth from late autumn to early winter (October to December).


About halfway down my cautious descent, I get my first sighting, a male and female frolicking in the shallows. Further on I peer down from a cliff overlooking a small inlet where ten or so seals lounge in the early morning sun. When I finally reach the rocky shoreline the tide is steadily retreating, revealing a mosaic of rusty brown rocks and silvery blue reflective pools of water. A serrated shard of rock, known as Peak Steel cuts through the sea to form a natural promenade. It is littered with both grey and harbour (common) seals. But it will be some time before I make it out to them.

Before I have time to get my camera out I find an unexpected treasure. A thumb-sized ammonite fossil catches my eye. Turning it over in my hand a silvery shimmer reveals the exquisite detail that is lightly impressed on the delicate thimble of deep blue-grey slate. This is a tangible treasure that will certainly capture my boys’ imaginations when I get home. 


Pocketing my new treasure and puzzling over what equipment to reach for first, my head is abuzz with all that surrounds me, along with the strong notion that “every moment matters”. Right now there is almost too much happening for me to process! There are seals everywhere. Mating, jostling, swimming, clambering, investigating, watching, sleeping. It’s so overwhelming it’s hard to know where and how to point the camera. 


To describe what’s in front of me as “rock hard” feels inaccurate, these rocks are the sort that make your bones hurt just by looking at them. I cautiously manoeuvre around them, wary of their tough coarseness on clothing and skin, and alert to the hidden seal pups that blend in so well in these surroundings. About halfway out between the cliffs and Peak Steel I come across a large pool of water, a natural and temporary lagoon. Several very chilled harbour seals lounge on the rocks that form the perimeter while a huge female grey, equally leisurely, floats on the surface. She effortlessly glides across the pool, barely making a ripple. Circling, cutting and zigzagging the trapped seawater, from time to time she’ll stop, and motionlessly pant through her nose causing light surface vibrations that resemble those tremors of a butterfly or bee stuck on the surface of a garden pond. It was hard to understand what she was doing but whatever it was, it was mesmerising and a memory that will stay vivid for a long time. 


I reluctantly leave the pool when the low tide feels at its peak, and cumbersomely scramble my way to explore Peak Steel before it begins to submerge again. As I walk out, there is a stark contrast between the seals on the rock and those in the water. The seals resting on the rocks are quietly cautious while the seal in the surrounding waters are playfully curious. 


Apart from the odd rambler, I’ve enjoyed the quiet and isolation. The peace is shattered by ten seals charging out and hitting the safety of the sea at terminal velocity. Behind the kerfuffle emerges a lank five-legged creature. It’s another photographer with, unimaginably, more equipment than myself. It would be easy to pass a scolding look of disapproval at what was a clearly an overzealous attempt to photograph the seals. It’s clear he’s conscious of his faux pas though, and there is so much intolerance and condescending judgement around these days, I feel loath to contribute to that toxic cocktail. I smile gently and move to the other side.


With the illusion shattered and tide beginning to encroach I decide to call it a day. There are still one or two surprises in store though as I stumble across several young seals chilling among the safety of this largely inhospitable landscape. What was a challenge for my joints and balance on the way down, turns into an onslaught for lungs and muscles on the way back up! Back at the top I reach the car with an equal measure of exhilaration and exhaustion. What an incredible experience, it seems fair that your body should have to work for something this magical. 

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