Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

The Homer

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In the Field

The Homer. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. October 3, 2016.

Harbour seals are high on my personal list of favourite wildlife subjects. Like many marine mammals, the fact that they spend so much time below water means we tend to see (and have available to us to photograph) only a limited subset of their total behavioral repertoire. Yet I find that the combination of their amazing diversity of coat colors, their HUGE and mesmerizing eyes, their long, white whiskers, and their almost comical "sausage" bodies makes it almost impossible for me to resist photographing them! I've joked with my photo tour co-leader that I could easily spend a week or more in the Great Bear Rainforest searching for and shooting nothing but Harbour seals! But I'm guessing that our guests on those Great Bear Rainforest photo tours likely have different goals and priorities, so I'll leave the "Great Seal Tour" off my photo tour schedule for now! ;-)

I find that once I spend time photographing a particular species of wildlife my curiosity about ALL aspects of that species' biology (including their behavior and how they interact with other species in the ecosystem) grows exponentially. This happens regardless of how common or how rare the subject is. Harbour seals are not at all uncommon, and to many who live in coastal regions they are so commonplace that they're easy to ignore (kind of like how many urbanites never pay attention to - or photograph - house sparrows).

I photographed this particular Harbour seal in one of my favourite inlets in the Great Bear Rainforest in early October of 2016. The inlet is quite remote and has a lot of seals in it (probably somewhere around 50-75 of them). As seen above, the seal was on a pretty attractive log snag - and we had seen and photographed a seal using this same snag in past years, including in October of 2015. While I was capturing this image I was thinking the seal looked extremely familiar to me. So...that evening I checked through the shots I took in the same location last year and, sure (and surprising) enough, it was the EXACT SAME seal using the EXACT SAME snag. This dude is definitely a "homer!" Amazing.

Being naturally curious, this discovery of the same seal using the same snag as a haulout a full year apart led me to more questions. Like..."Just how long do Harbour seals actually live?" and "Are they solitary and territorial or gregarious with a dominance hierarchy (and this guy either was at the top of the dominance hierarchy and got to choose this wonderful "perch" OR maybe this was a low-status log)?". it turns out...these swimming sausages live very long lives - with males living up to 25 years and females up to 35 years! In the non-breeding season they tend to be solitary when in water but will form dominance hierarchies at haulout sites (with males being dominant over females and juveniles). But...come breeding season the males form aquatic territories where they perform a variety of vocal and non-vocal displays to attract females and to ward off other males. Hmmm...pretty cool.

What do Harbour seals eat and what eats them? Not surprisingly, seals are generalist predators and go for a variety of medium-sized schooling fish (like Pacific Herring). But they'll also eat squid, octopuses, and shrimp...and they've even been observed killing and eating ducks! What (besides humans, at least historically) eats Harbour seals? Well...aquatic predators include transient Killer Whales (AKA Bigg's Killer Whales) and Steller Sea Lions. But several types of terrestrial predators will hunt and eat Harbour Seals, including coastal wolves, cougars, and even bears (both blacks and grizzlies). From an ecological perspective the food web of which Harbour Seals are a part forms an interesting nutrient and energy pathway from the ocean bottom through to the surrounding terrestrial ecosystem.

There you go - Harbour Seals: Cool photographic subjects - and with a fascinating role in the ecology of coastal environments. Anyone want to join me on my "Great Seal Tour?" ;-)

Here's a larger (2400 pixel) version of this striking seal for your perusal:

The Homer: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)


1. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. This image was captured during one of my autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours in 2016. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as one to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to additional locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as various boreal owl species, fishing grizzlies, and more. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

3. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject(s) is/are fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my/our presence, nothing has been done to intentionally alter or affect the ongoing behavior of the subject and, of course, there has been no use of any form of bait or other form of wildlife attractants (including vocalizations).

Behind the Camera

The Homer. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. October 3, 2016.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 1250.

Nikon D500 paired with Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (for an EFL of 750mm). Hand-held from Zodiac. VR on and in "Sport" mode.

1/400s @ f5; -1.33 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

The Homer. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. October 3, 2016.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One's Capture One Pro 9.3. Four raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, with the variants differing in exposure settings (0.7 stop total difference between the variants), shadow/highlight retrieval settings, and in noise reduction settings.

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2015 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the four output files from the raw converter, minor exposure and colour saturation tweaks, and final selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


The Homer. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. October 3, 2016.

Ten percent of the revenue generated by this image will be donated to The Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Species Status in Canada*: Most Harbour Seal populations in Canada are not listed as Threatened or Endangered. The Lac des Loups Marins landlocked population of Quebec (Ungave Peninsula) currently listed as Endangered (most recent assessment update - November 2007).

The Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina) is found on both the eastern and western coasts of North America. They tend not to make long migrations and in many areas they are present year-round. When foraging Harbour Seals normally dive to between 30 and 100 metres in depth and stay below the surface for 5 to 6 minutes. On occasion they have been known to dive to depths of over 450 metres and have stay submerged for almost 30 minutes. Harbour Seals have a diverse diet, including cephalopod, crustacceans and a variety of fish such as herring, eulachon, pollock, and salmon.

Historically bounty programs were used in both Canada and the USA to reduce populations of Harbour Seals. In more recent times seals have become protected over much of North America and some populations have rebounded strongly (it is estimated that over 150,000 seals now occupy the coast of British Columbia). There is a land-locked and freshwater sub-species of the Harbour Seal found on the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec. This population is now down to an estimated 100 individuals and is listed as Endangered by COSEWIC.

The Raincoast Conservation Society (and Foundation) is an effective and efficient organization that has been fighting for protection of this unique habitat. If you are looking for a meaningful way to contribute to the conservation of this amazing ecosystem, Raincoast will provide maximal "bang" for your conservation dollars.

*as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.