Chasing leopard seals in Antarctica

Though everyone would agree that ice is king in Antarctica, the most powerful of natural elements, when it comes to the animal world the Leopard seal – 1,000 pounds of lightning fast muscle armed with a mouthful of sharp incisors – is the top of the food chain. While confident due to their size and position, they have been known to drag the occasional diver to the bottom of the ocean and not playfully.

So anyone who dives in the Southern Ocean is constantly attuned for who, or what, is swimming nearby. When my friend Kelvin Murray, who splits his underwater time between two cold water destinations (the North Atlantic and Antarctica), sent this photo of himself being followed/observed/stalked by a big Leopard seal I had to know what he was thinking:

“Let’s face it; diving in Antarctica is not for everyone. Many people ask me what is it like to roll out of the boat into zero-degree water. First question is always, Doesn’t your face freeze? Well yes, but it goes numb so quickly I don’t feel anything. Is the equipment heavy? Yes, but I’m ‘weightless’ in the water. Is there anything to see?
Yes, lots… “It’s when I tell them about the Leopard seals that they truly believe me to be mad. With a head three times the size a man’s, equipped with large canine and tricuspid teeth, powered by 1000 pounds of muscle and flesh in a twelve-foot long frame, this is a creature that demands respect.

“It was while I was guiding a group of underwater photographers on a recent trip along the Antarctic Peninsula that I had my closest encounter.

“We were reaching the end of the dive when the seal appeared. It immediately swam around and amongst us, using its long foreflippers to manuever with precise grace. Straight away it began to gape at the various camera dome ports, flashing its teeth in time with the flashing of the strobes.

“My dive partner took this particular shot as the Leopard circled us. Seconds later I turned around and found myself eyeball to huge, black eyeball with the mighty seal, literally, physically and metaphorically in my face. It hung in the water, slowly twisting and gazing at me with what looked to b a huge crooked smile. I was careful not to blow bubbles – this is sometimes regarded a sign of aggression or frustration in marine mammals – and slowly turned my face away, reminding myself a stare-down might be seen as a challenge. The seal continued to stamp its authority on the area as we returned to our boat, giving us ample opportunity to express a mix of admiration, joy and well…relief. Later in the day we returned to the site and watched with macabre enthusiasm as the seal chased down, drowned and dismembered a penguin, with our snorkelers mere feet away.

“This was a very special encounter. There are few places in the world where you can get so close to an apex carnivore to observe while it stalks, hunts, kills and eats. With iconic top predators under intense pressure the world over, mostly due to some kind of human impact – whether wolves and dogs, bears or big cats – the much-maligned Great White shark is more endangered in the wild than the tiger. All of these majestic animals deserve respect and probably a small portion of appropriate fear but despite our inherent misgivings, the reality is they have more to fear from us than we have of them.”
Photograph by and courtesy of Chris Sterritt