A group of chinstrap and gentoo penguins weathers a snowstorm. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)
During a frigid expedition through the Antarctic Ocean, Living on Earth’s Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender saw chinstrap penguins aplenty. Then, on his seventeenth and final day, he finally encountered the king of the South Pole: the mighty and fearsome leopard seal.
CURWOOD: Let’s travel now to the frigid Antarctic with Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender.
Half Moon Island, South Shetlands
© 2018 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved
LENDER: The ship has disappeared. The slope of the steep hill almost gone. The chinstrap penguins lie down, like stones, and let the snow drift over them. A form of shelter not available to me.
It’s time to leave.
Over the sound of the storm the penguins can still be heard. Agitated by the weather. Maybe. Or, because of something about the sea. Even before the visibility went down they would enter with hesitation and exit, leaping, onto the fast ice that bounds the shore. Leaping high. Higher than it seemed they had to though still with agility and grace.
By contrast I am an artless thing, encumbered by my gear, and my heavy boots and layers. I come clambering like an arthritic bear down into the Zodiac. The outboard spits, then catches, and my pilot, dead reckoning, steers towards where we figure the ship might be.
Above the clouds the sun shines, while underneath, where we are, it is all a milky dusk. The snow instead of melting when it hits the water clumps, like Greek pastries (oval and dusted white). We carve a wake through the day-for-night that disappears behind us. Not comforting. Until the pilot throttles back.
Look! he says.
And I drop to me knees, and lean out over the stern to greet to be greeted, by a monster, of the sea.
Now comes the penguins’ terror, come of his free will: The great head serpentine in form the mouth a long line the lips a blood rust red, the eyes all but black, and so deep. I see my own reflection staring back from them. And say aloud, Hello! Hello, Leopard Seal…
Leopard Seal replies only in that he does not leave. He could flip us over like tossing a rag into the air. Or with a single thrust land in our midst. Instead he listens while I talk to him replying in his silent gaze. He shows his backward curving teeth (from which there is no escape). He stays at arm’s length (which for an animal his size is very, very, close) and though he comes no closer he came to me!
Neither of us has ever seen the like of the other.
We look, and look, a shared and common recognition, that the absence of fear can be contagious.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender.
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