There are five main species of seal on the Antarctic Peninsula, but one of rarest and most interesting is the leopard seal. Unlike other Antarctic seals that subsist primarily on krill, fish, or squid, the leopard seal's diet consists primarily of penguins. Its long, serpentine body is built for speed and agility, and its mouth is fixed in a smile looking simultaneously content, menacing, and mesozoic.
On a typical week-long expedition, a group is lucky to see one or two leopard seals, and many trips go by without seeing any at all. Imagine our surprise at not only coming across a leopard resting on some floating ice in the harbor, but in coming close enough to get pictures like these:
As we slowly circled the ice, the seal would occasionally look up to see what we were up to, then stretch back down and close its eyes, occasionally stretching its tail out or scratching its belly just like a person. Concerned at how close we were, I asked about the dangers they pose to people and Rob reassured us that they're not aggressive to humans, that attacks almost never happen, and when they do it's always a misunderstanding. Like the woman who was snorkeling when a leopard dragged her down several hundred feet and drowned her, or the handful of times that leopard seals have jumped out of the water to nip at the ankles of people it mistook for penguins from under the water. These assurances didn't make me feel more comfortable circling within sneezing distance of the leopard, but on the other hand it pretty clearly wasn't agitated.
Progressing on from the leopard seal, we landed on a beach with three lounging weddell seals. Unlike the leopard seal, weddells rely on a very thick layer of fat to keep them warm. If you were to x-ray such a seal, you'd find a huge bag of insulation with a relatively small animal tucked inside of it. They're indifferent-to-curious around people, and have small cute heads compared to the rest of their bodies.
We went up on the ice pack you see below to get a better view of them and had our first experience watching out for, and stepping over, hidden crevasses in the ice. In a pack this small a fall wouldn't be very dangerous, but it's good practice to look for the subtle disturbances in the snow that indicate that it's just a top layer over empty space.
Our weather, as would be usual, was just beautiful.
After leaving the seals, we spent a bit of time just exploring some of the older growlers and bergy bits floating in the harbor. Because they had been in the water for months or longer, melting and turning and melting some more, there were some fantastic shapes and colors. One of my favorites was a small softball-sized piece of solid ice, sitting black in the water until I lifted it out to take back to the boat.
The ice in the water comes about in many different ways. Some freezes on the sea and is frozen saltwater, others are packs of snow that have fallen and joined glaciers, or even snow that has fallen on existing icebergs as they float around the sea. Clear ice always means one thing though: very old glacial ice that fell long enough ago that it was covered by tons of later snowfalls until, in the bowels of the glacier, it gets compressed into solid, clear ice. Ice that goes through this process is typically over a thousand years old, and I plucked a chunk of it out of the water and brought it back to the boat to keep my drink cold. Time really does have a different meaning out here.
Circling back to the ship, we de-geared long enough to have a relaxed lunch and catch our breath before heading out just over an hour later for our first steps on the continent proper, and a bit of fun...
Read the next chapter: Day 2: Snow Day
Table of Contents:
Introduction: Telling the Story posted Jan 10, 2009
Day 0: Positioning posted Jan 12, 2009
Leaving, on a jet plane posted Jan 12, 2009
Day 1: The Herc posted Jan 15, 2009
Day 1: Penguino posted Jan 16, 2009
Day 2: Chicken posted Jan 17, 2009
» Day 2: Leopard posted Jan 19, 2009
Day 2: Snow Day posted Jan 22, 2009
Day 2: Shipwreck posted Jan 26, 2009
Day 2: Totally Tabular posted Jan 27, 2009
Day 3: Gentoo Cute posted Jan 29, 2009
Day 3: Lichen Shag Glacier posted Feb 3, 2009
Day 3: Palmer Station Visit posted Feb 9, 2009
Day 4: Icy Penguins posted Feb 11, 2009
Day 4: Adelie Awesome posted Feb 15, 2009
Day 4: Leopard Seal Attack posted Feb 17, 2009
Day 4: Kayak posted Feb 19, 2009
Day 4: Vernadsky Station Visit posted Feb 23, 2009
Day 4: Vernadsky Sunset posted Feb 25, 2009
Day 5: Antarctic Circle posted Feb 27, 2009
Day 5: Polar Plunge posted Mar 5, 2009
Day 5: Mouth of The Gullet posted Mar 13, 2009
Day 5: Ice Camping posted Mar 18, 2009
Day 6: Flamingos on Ice posted Mar 20, 2009
Day 6: Mountain Climbing posted Mar 24, 2009
Day 6: Ice Textures posted Mar 26, 2009
Day 6: Antarctic New Years posted Apr 2, 2009
Day 7: Crystal Sound Icebreaker posted Apr 9, 2009
Day 7: Abandoned Antarctica: Base W - Part 1 posted Apr 17, 2009
Day 7: Abandoned Antarctica: Base W - Part 2 posted Apr 21, 2009
Day 8: Bird Watching in the Fish Islands posted Apr 23, 2009
Day 8: Icee Day - Part 1 posted May 5, 2009
Day 8: Icee Day - Part 2 posted May 11, 2009
Day 9: Port Lockroy - Base A posted May 20, 2009
Bonus Chapter: Baby Penguins! posted May 21, 2009
Day 9: Antarctic Humpback Whales posted June 3, 2009
Day 9: Dallmann Butt Sliding posted June 11, 2009
Day 10: Birthday Whales posted June 23, 2009
Day 10: Hannah Point Part 1: The Birds posted July 15, 2009
Day 10: Hannah Point Part 2: Elephant Seals posted July 22, 2009
Day 10: Deception Island - Part 1: Walking on the Moon posted Dec 11, 2009
Day 10: Deception Island - Part 2: The Martian Chronicles of Oz posted Dec 15, 2009
Day 11: Emperor Penguins posted Jan 8, 2010
Day 12: Black and White and Pink All Over posted Aug 4, 2011
More chapters posted every few days...
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