A Close Encounter With a Leopard Seal

By Guest Blogger Hal Brindley

Cristina and I were camping in Ithala National Park in South Africa when a couple invited us to share dinner around their campfire. Five minutes into the conversation the man turned to me and said, “I’m sailing to Antarctica with a couple friends and we need another man. Are you interested?”

Two months later I was stepping off a plane in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, and catching a taxi to the public sailboat dock.

There would be six of us (four South Africans, a Canadian, and myself; an American) none of whom I had known for more than five minutes. Together we would sail a 50-foot aluminum-hulled sailboat across one of the world’s most dangerous stretches of ocean, The Drake Passage, then spend several weeks exploring the Antarctic Peninsula.

Adelie Penguins
Adelie Penguins

Most people who visit Antarctica travel aboard a cruise ship with over a hundred passengers and pay $8000 for a 10-day visit. I had somehow found myself embarking on my dream journey, paying only for my share of the food and fuel (amounting to $400) and getting to spend nearly a month wandering alone in the Antarctic wilderness. And I didn’t even really know how to sail.

Two thirds of the way across the Drake Passage we awoke to a fright. John was on watch when he poked his head below deck and shouted, “ICEBERG!” When the sleepy crew and I had finally squirmed out of our sleeping bags, we emerged to see a block of blue ice fading into the darkness behind us. It was as tall as a skyscraper and as wide as a city block. And we had barely missed it. Icebergs are not normally seen this far from the continent. Time to turn on the radar.

Leopard seal
Who’s a cutie pie? Yes you are!

We completed the crossing in four days without further incident, landing inside the crater of Deception Island in the middle of the night. The next day we would lose an anchor attempting to dislodge ourselves, but from here out I hardly concerned myself with such issues. I was in Antarctica, and I had come to see the wildlife.

In the hold I discovered an inflatable kayak, still in the box and never used. I pumped it up and discovered it was hardly more than a pool toy, just a thin layer of vinyl all around. But it was my ticket to freedom. At the first stop I donned my foul weather gear, wrapped my camera gear in plastic bags (in case my un-seaworthy vessel should capsize) and carefully lowered myself into the tipsy little craft. With a flimsy plastic paddle, I propelled myself across the crystal clear water, which hovered as close to freezing as physically possible without actually freezing.  Within minutes a Minke whale surfaced twenty yards to my left, blew a spout of steam into the air, and dove. It passed directly under on my kayak, too deep to see, and surfaced again on my right for another breath. I was exhilarated, but it also suddenly occurred to me how ridiculously dangerous this was. I was alone in a remote continent on a kayak that I could probably sink by giving it a sharp look, in deep water so cold that I would probably die of hypothermia within a minute if I fell in. And I had neglected to put on a life jacket. On top of that, there were leopard seals around.

A humback whale
A humback whale

The leopard seal had grown in my imagination to be the most fearsome predator in Antarctica. Certainly it wasn’t the biggest; an orca outweighed it by many tons. But something about its reptilian face and lithe neck and wide toothy grin made it undeniably creepy to me. Unlike an orca it could travel both land and sea. It had recently been reported that a leopard seal had killed a scuba diver, and even more recently there had been reports of leopard seals biting and popping inflatable dinghies just for their own amusement. Some said they appeared to enjoy the sound of air escaping from the gash.

I didn’t know how much of it was hype or hyperbole. I only knew that a leopard seal was the one thing I most wanted, and least wanted to see at that very moment. In the distance a large slug-shaped creature slipped into the water from a floating patch of ice and disappeared.

Over the next couple weeks I paddled to many strange shores, set foot on a dozen islands, wandered alone amongst vast colonies of Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins and was accepted as one of their own. I saw molting Elephant Seals, cavorting Fur Seals, fat Weddell Seals with their cute curly whiskers and Crabeater Seals with their bizarre sieve-like arrangement of teeth. We passed Humpback Whales that breached beside our boat, and Minkes and Orcas. I watched Skuas and Giant Petrels devouring penguin carcasses and was bombarded by Antarctic Terns near their nesting grounds. And yes, I even saw a few leopard seals lounging lazily on the pack ice as they yawned their gaping pink maws toward the sky and eyed me with their watery black eyes. But it was always from a distance. That is, until we landed at Booth Island.

The leopard seal
The leopard seal

I hiked across the island in my tall rubber boots, and discovered a hidden cove that was collecting a spectacular assortment of ice formations. Upon one of these bergy bits rested a large spotted grey torpedo. As I watched through my binoculars, it raised its head like a snake and my heart jumped at the realization of what lay in front of me. A leopard seal, just twenty feet from the shore.

I clambered down among the rocks and snow and approached the pebbly beach as slowly and quietly as I could. I was now fifty feet away as the seal’s icy bed continued to drift toward the shore. Finally it lodged amongst the rest of the frozen detritus and the leopard raised its head. It looked straight at me and opened its vast nostrils like two gray-lipped mouths to inhale my scent. The ferocious beast did not leap from its icy perch and tear out my throat. In fact, it was no ferocious beast at all. It was just a seal that occasionally ate penguins and other seals, but in fact spent most of its time sieving tiny krill from the water. He blinked once at me and lay his head back down to continue his nap.

Minke whale
A minke whale

I crept closer still and reached the edge of the water. I was wearing my waders so I was waterproof up to my chest. The seal dozed on as I entered the freezing water, trying not to slip on the round grapefruit-sized stones under my feet. I approached within ten feet. His ice bed protruded only a couple feet from the water so he loomed now at eye level, a hulking form longer than me and certainly twice as heavy. He rolled his head lazily toward me as my body tensed. I noticed a trail of bloody feces dripping down the back of his ice mattress, a reminder that this was indeed a hunter that lay before me. But he gave no reaction, only a mild curiosity registered on his features. I snapped a few pictures of the magnificent animal and then looked into his eyes. If he wished, he could have leaned over and engulfed my skull in his gaping jaws. Instead he sighed deeply and turned his muscular torso away from me. I took this as a signal that he was bored of my presence and backed slowly away.

I don’t condone approaching wild animals, and in retrospect I realize it was a selfish impulse that compelled me forward: my desire to feel the thrill of being near an animal that frightened me. Yet it gave me an understanding that I lacked before: that this was no monster. He was just an individual like myself who might occasionally harass others for his own entertainment (like biting into a zodiac to hear the hiss of air escaping) but who otherwise went on about his life doing his best to survive and every once in a while enjoying a nap in the sunshine. He smiled his great wide smile at my back as I stumbled to the shore and disappeared over the ridge.

Leopard seal
How could you not love him. Look at that smile!

About the Guest Blogger

Hal and Cristina blog about wildlife and their travel adventures at  travel4wildlife.com. You can also keep up with them on Facebook and Twitter


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