Amazing Christmas Present

Marz 30th, 2017

Translation from Czech: Ing. Iveta Černá PhD

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Just before Christmas 2013 my family gave me a wonderful present - travel voucher to island Düne in Northern sea, a small sandy island situated 1 mile to the east of the well-known main island Heligoland. Mission: taking photographs of seals.
Thursday night, I and two friends (Lada and Martin) were heading for Cuxhaven seaport in Germany. In winter, the ferry to Heligoland departs only once daily. The weather was rather bad, but we remained positive, since the Cyclone Xaver impacted the said destination area the week before and the weather forecast said it would be quite fine. In the afternoon the very same day, just after we arrived to Heligoland, checked in a hotel and unpacked, we took a boat to the neighbouring Düne island, where several dozens of families of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) have their habitat.

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We were truly excited and thus vacillated between different objects to focus our telephoto lenses on, since this was the very first time we had the occasion to see these particular mammals (that weigh up to 140 kg) in the wild. The fantastic scenery was complemented by several species of waders and ubiquitous scream of great species of gulls.
After 11-month gestation, the birthing of baby seal pups takes place on the island, thus in the evening, we returned to Heligoland and looked forward to tomorrow, for the weather forecast said it would be glorious all day. It seemed we were in luck. Back in the hotel, we reviewed the pictures taken and made plans for the next day. Also, we checked the batteries status and memory sticks capacity and inspected the photography equipment. The latter was wrapped in cling film in order to protect it from perpetual wind and omnipresent sand. On the edge of sleep, we heard the raindrops falling on the windows...
The proverb has it that tomorrow is another day. Hence we eagerly awaited the sunrise. Although there were some clouds on the sky, the sun was shining. At 9 a.m. we started our daylong trip and took a boat to Düne, again. And we were not by far the only – apart from us (three Czechs), there were also the Dutch, Poles, Germans and Britons aboard. Merely five minutes after we set sail, we arrived to Düne and discussed our schedule. We decided to start on the right side of the island with the sun at our back. After few minutes’ walk, we set our eyes on a cove with lighthouse and sandy beach, covered with a layer of marine plants, standing and lying photographers and, indeed, seals. On my knees and breathless, I looked in the almond-shaped eyes of a pup lying in marine plants. I quickly took several photos to capture this big moment. After a while, we found other pups and watched seal fights and lazy mother pinnipeds wallowing but closely watching their pups, always ready to attack the unwelcome visitor. We also photographed seals hunting and bathing, older pups in thicker coats with lanugo and mothers nursing baby pups.

Birth of seal pup

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Time passed fast. In the evening, when returning to the harbour, I saw a knot of photographers. Something extraordinary was going on there. As I came closer I figured out that a female pinniped was in labour, just about to give birth. The birthing of one pup weighing several kilograms can even take several hours. Unfortunately, we did not have so much time. I sat down in the sand and, as the others, stared in amazement at the female lying on her side. She occasionally moved and a piece of pup’s body peeped out. The remaining amount of time we had before the boat departure went inexorably by. In addition, this was the very last day of our trip. Yet we were in luck! We leapt into the air with joy when we witnessed the arrival of the pup, after several additional minutes of labour. This was the most beautiful gift we could get!
Our hearts were racing when we were caching the boat. In the hotel, we raised our glasses in a toast to our trip. Mission accomplished. Sunday morning, the weather was rainy and windy again, so we caught up on some sleep and then took a ferry back to Cuxhaven.

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