Antarctica - Been There

Leopard seal encounter with a happy ending

A leopard seal preys on a chinstrap penguin. Only half-a-dozen seal species make their homes in the Antarctic. A thick layer of special fat, called blubber, insulate seals from these sub-zero waters as they hunt, diving more than 300meters below the surface in search of food. The seals’ black eyes are specially designed for sight in the lightless cold far below the surface.

Photo by Göran Ehlmé / Waterproof Expeditions

Antarctica - Been There

Leopard seal encounter with a happy ending

“Let’s look for leopard seals!” says Peter with a grin on his face. Together with the orca, the leopard seal is the supreme predator in the Antarctic food chain.

Jochem Wijnands
Eline Feenstra Travel Writer

As we leave sight of our expedition ship, the dinghy that carries us powers deep into a wilderness of icebergs. We spot a leopard seal and Peter Szyszka, our Waterproof Expeditions leader, maneuvers for an up-close encounter.

They are huge – females can grow up to 12 feet long. They hunt for penguins and krill, though less frequently eat other seals, such as crab-eaters. As February comes to an end, so does the mating and reproduction season. Now is the perfect time for hunting.

A penguin dangles above the water, trapped in the seal’s mouth

Peter guides the boat skillfully. Floating sea ice grates along its tough rubber skin. Otherwise, all is quiet. But we are fortunate. A flash of silver lights up the surface. The head of a leopard seal makes me think of a dinosaur, a predator from another time and place. And this one has something. A small penguin dangles above the water with its feet trapped in the seal’s mouth.

The seal violently shakes his head and disappears below the waves. Then both appear again, still attached to one another. They approach the foot of an iceberg, where the water is shallow and turquoise blue. I hold my breath. I have heard the seals skin their prey alive by hitting them on the water. It is a brutal, unforgiving sight.

But, somehow, the penguin escapes. With breakneck speed the little bird leaps onto the iceberg. As the penguin flees, the seal glides up and down. We can almost touch them now; that is how close we are. Nature in its wildest form.

I feel as though I have entered Jurassic Park. But here everything is white and, despite the cruelty of nature, somehow it all seems in harmony.

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