Never Go Away Empty Handed

A couple nights ago I received and email from the biologist at Cape Hatteras National Seashore that there were something like 5 seals out on the beaches that day. Naturally, I was ready to pack my truck and head out right then and there. However, I was scheduled to photograph someones private horses the following morning, and then meet with a prospective client that afternoon who was looking for private photography instruction. Thus, the seals would have to wait until today.

With batteries charged and a pocket full of 8 gig compact-flash cards ready to go, I headed out at first light. Though Hatteras and Ocracoke Island are part of the Outer Banks, they are still quite a drive to get to. Considering that Hatteras alone is some 70 miles long, and then a 45 minute ferry ride to Ocracoke to boot, you looking at more than a 2 hour drive.

First stop on the itenerary was Cape Point, also known simply as The Point, Cape Point is what those from the mainland typically refer to as Cape Hatteras – the physical cape on the island. From the report I had received I knew that there had been two harbor seal pups hanging out on the very tip of the point and were both very healthy and active. Sure enough, while I was still nearly 100 yards out from the tip, I saw one of the seals. Instantly however it began the seemingly awkward retreat back to the water that only true seals must undergo. Since the true seals front flippers are short and stubby, they cannot propel themselves along like the seals and sea lions of the Pacific. Meaning, your never going to sea a seal from the Western Atlantic sit up and clap as Sea World. Therefore, in order to move their bodies across the beach, they undergo this sort of undulating flop and drag over the sand. Its my opinion that extreme shyness of many of these seals is born from their awkwardness on land and the difficulty they have retreating to the water.

Upon noticing the extreme skittishness of this seal, I went ahead and stopped my truck where it was. Knowing fully well that there would be no way to get close enough to this individual to make the photographs that I have elsewhere on this site of seals, I was hoping to at least be able to create some environmental portraits of it. I suited up in my 5mm neoprene waders since I would be doing a GI Joe crawl through the sand and would likely end up in the water. I managed to half the distance between my truck and the seal with such a low profile before the animal became visibly nervous again. Not wanting to run it off the beach – since it was here trying to rest in the first place – I decided I was close enough and would work with what I had.

After 20 minutes or so of shooting, I pretty much just gave up on it. There was just too much distance and too much blowing sand to be able to really create anything worth while. Thus I headed on south to Ocracoke.

After a 45 minute ferry ride I drove off the boat and right back onto the beach to head up to the North Point of the island. This is a favorite spot for seals typically as the area gets very little use. Alas though, there was nothing happening here. Just off to the west sat Cora June Island, a man made dredge spoil that had several seals on it as I passed by on the ferry, however with the high winds today, I had no interest in putting my kayak in the water and paddling out across the inlet with a 25 mph head wind to reach the island. Maybe next week.

Not wanting to have made a trip all the way down to Ocracoke for nothing, I decided to switch tactics and photograph some shorebirds instead. Since this was an inlet spit I was on, and therefore it over-washed regularly, debris was everywhere – perfect habitat for shorebirds.

As I have noted on here before, when photographing any animal, its always my routine to start out at eye level since this puts you on their plane of perspective and give the animal a more prominent and powerful place in the picture space. I didn’t have a ground pod with me at the time so I simply grabbed a sweatshirt from my truck and used it to prop my lens up and keep the rig out of the sand. Once I was in place – waders for warmth and dryness on as well as my wading jacket for the same reason – I was ready to settle in to my position for a couple hours.

The more you move, the less birds are going to come in on you like this. Therefore, you have to make sure you are going to be comfortable laying face down in the sand for an extended period. This gives you a great perspective for photograph these birds, but lets face it, you are going to be cold, wet, and have a very soar neck from craning it up to look through your viewfinder the whole time. The results however, are dramatically better than the alternatives.

After shooting shore birds for a couple hours, I pulled off the waders and jumped back into the truck to head back over the ferry to find deer. A little known fact about Cape Hatteras National Seashore is that there are LOTS of deer around the backside of the Cape.  After lunch I headed back out to the sand roads behind Cape Point to find around 25 deer feeding heavily on the American Beach grass and other browse that makes up the inter-dune habitat there.

Though I didn’t get exactly what I had set out for this morning, all things considered, it turned out to be a pretty good day of photography with a large diversity of subjects. I always try and have projects or goals in my mind when I am out photographing. However, we don’t always get what we want when we want it, so you have to be open and willing the change tactics quickly and make the best out of every situation.

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