Since the earliest days of Austral Polar exploration, Leopard Seals have been portrayed as fearsome and aggressive creatures. With a snake like appearance and huge mouths lined with sharp, menacing teeth, it’s no wonder these beautiful creatures have gotten a bad rap. Paul Nicklen, a famous National Geographic photographer specializing in underwater polar imagery, attempted to dispel the negative myths about Leopard Seals by capturing intimate one on one photos with them in the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. As I came eye to eye with a 3 meter long female, my mind went blank.
Alone in my zodiac, I was searching for a safe place to drop anchor - away from drifting icebergs and rocky shoals exposing themselves with the falling tide. There were two Leopard Seals in the area- one napping peacefully on an ice floe and one very inquisitive individual who was diving under the boats, investigating our strange fast moving black rubber icebergs. All of the sudden, less than a meter from my face a long sleek body emerged from the water to meet my standing position, starting square at me with gigantic brown eyes.
Mesmerized, all I could do was stare back, admiring the power and beauty of this amazing creature. This behavior called spy hopping, is used by nautical predators to see what tasty wildlife may be atop an ice floe or along the shore. I knew she was hunting, but somehow I wasn’t afraid, more in awe - studying the subtle curves of her powerful jaw and gigantic mouth, the small whiskers below flaring nostrils, and those captivatingly investigative eyes.
She seemed to hang in the air and a moment later, slipped silently back beneath the icy sea while the moment we shared hung languidly in the crisp air. It took a moment to realize that I was still holding my breath. I watched her dark shadow glide gracefully around the boat, sometimes playfully swimming on her back, revealing a lighter coloured underbelly. The shadow slowly faded from site and I sat down to enshrine the intimate experience shared between man and beast.
- February 2016