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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Note: Leopard Seal Says Hello

Published: May 17, 2019

By Mark Seth Lender

A leopard seal glides through the water. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender was astounded when a huge leopard seal swam right up to his small Zodiac boat on a trip to Antarctica. He muses on the rare close encounter.

Leopard seals are the polar bears of the Antarctic, in size, and power, and where they sit in the food chain: Right up front, on top. They have no fear of any living thing and the penguins regard them with a well-reasoned terror. There was another leopard seal besides the one who approached us but she or he remained at some distance, between two huge grounded icebergs. The penguins had to pass through that narrows or go way around the ice. Most of the ones who took the shortcut probably never returned. Nor did the long way round offer full protection because the leopard seal who approached our Zodiac came from that direction. Were the two of them hunting cooperatively? It wouldn’t surprise me. They are certainly intelligent enough.

Why then did only one approach me?

There are no definitive answers. Perhaps this was a young animal. I very much doubt he’d seen the likes of me before and the young, especially when curious, often show little fear. What was his perception? Why didn’t he see me as a particularly large and likely edible species of penguin? Not clear. Or to put it another way, what did he see, and why did he trust me? More to the point, how did I know I could trust him?

Leopard Seal stayed with us. He followed the Zodiac almost to the ship, which was a couple of kilometers out. The weather cleared (it can do that, going from storm to calm in only minutes), I collected my sound gear (which is what I’d returned for), and he picked us up again as we motored back to Half Moon Island to make recordings of the chinstraps. It was our last point of landing after 17 days at sea in the Antarctic Ocean. I had given up all hope of encountering a leopard seal, and at no point expected anything like this.

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