In the northern part of The Netherlands, we have the ‘Wadden Sea’, a World Heritage Site referred to by UNESCO as “the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world”. Basically lots of small islands, many sandy beaches, and lots of marine wildlife. We have two main species of seals over there: ‘regular’ seals and grey seals. Neither to be mistaken with sea lions; e.g. seals do not have ear flaps, do not use their flippers to move around on land; they move with their bellies (not the most efficient way but that’s how nature made them…).
It’s currently spring time in the Northern Hemisphere and the seals are picking their favourite sandy spots on or in between the Wadden Sea islands to relax from swimming and fishing and catch some early season sunshine on a patch of exposed sand. The standard – and only legal way to spot them, is to rent one of the tour boats and watch them from a ‘safe’ distance; i.e. up to a distance of 100 meters or more. Safe doesn’t always mean practical, and in the case of seals it’s basically impossible to a single decent shot. Not only is this distance just too far; these tour boats are relatively small and as they are continuously hit by the waves, you find yourself moving violently in all directions, trying to keep your focus on the seals over and over again while your gear keeps pushing on your arms with over 5 kg. of gravitational force… pretty much impossible.
I started off with the Nikon D850 and the 600mm f/4E FL super telephoto prime. It didn’t get me close enough for a decent shot: I just got a bunch of dark spots on a nasty bright background. Fortunately I had brought my TC-20E III extender: ‘heave artillery’ I normally don’t use. But I had tried this extender once before in ‘test mode’ and the results were unexpectedly positive: very little decrease in IQ and sharpness on the new Nikon DSLRs and new lenses (like the 600mm f/4E FL). As I still didn’t get close enough even with the TC-20E III on the D850, I decided to take out the D500 to give me that additional 50% focal length through its 1.5 crop frame/factor. And lo & behold, I finally managed to get perhaps not even 1% of these friendly furry critters successfully in my viewfinder.
Getting a sharp image at an effective focal length of 1800mm while moving violently around in all directions, is not something you experience every day. What helps is the excellent VR on the Nikon 600mm f/4, which I always set to ‘normal’ and not ‘sport’ when hand-holding the lens (the latter works better when using on a tripod). And then we have the cool 10 frames/sec. of the D500 which helps as well. But next to all that, I guess there’s always a little luck you need on your side…
So when I took my first glance at this little guy (or girl; happy to hear from any skilled biologist) I couldn’t help thinking about the time of the (sunny) day, the expression on the seal’s face, the whole setting (trying to balance myself in a rocking boat shooting like crazy, not expecting anything useful) and I thought: this was all a bit like Pharrell Willams… “It might seem crazy what I’m ’bout to say… Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break… Because I’m happy… !