Updated 07 April: I showed the photos to an Ice Peep who knows about these things and she confirmed it was indeed a leopard seal that I saw! Wow! Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get to see one in the wild!
Antarctica is full of surprises.
I think anyone who’s been here would agree, though Scott, Vince, Oates and a host of others might go further and say the continent specializes in rather nasty, mean-spirited sorts of surprises.
In any case, every time I walk to Hut Point, when I get to that final curve before the ground opens onto the small saddle overlooking McMurdo Sound, I find myself thinking “I wonder what’s around the corner?”
Because it never looks the same.
Sometimes I can see The Royal Societies far across the Sound, sometimes not. Even when their jagged summits are visible, they look different, distorted by Fata Morgana optical illusions, blurred by mist or colored pink and crimson with Alpenglow.
Sometimes Tent Island and its sister, Inaccessible Island (love the name), are visible, sometimes not. There can be fog or blowing snow or a sharp light with clarity unparalleled outside of the Ice Planet Hoth.
Once, in summer, when I turned that corner I almost stepped on a penguin. Last winter, I rounded the curve just in time to see the winking lights of a C17 take shape in the dark expanse as a life-saving medevac unfolded.
Last year, on an overcast but calm day, I sat for a long time listening to a Weddell seal, just its snout visible, breathing in great huffs of air as it rested at the surface between dives. I’ve also seen pregnant Weddell seals, their already torpedo-shaped bodies swollen like a snake that’s just swallowed its prey whole, rolling around on the ice right below Hut Point.
This time of year, the waning weeks of light, I never know if the Sound will still be open water or frozen over or glazed with a thin shell of ice that breaks and shimmers with the wind.
But, until today, well… I always felt I was the one doing the observing, never the reverse. I never felt so glad I have legs and seals do not.
Coming around the curve, I took in first the clear light on the Royal Societies and then the bleak murk hanging over Tent Island.
Then I glanced down at the foot of the little rocky point and saw the head and shoulders of a massive thing in the water.
I’ve seen plenty of Weddell seals during my time on the Ice. They always struck me as adorable, roly-poly creatures with big puppy dog eyes and kitty-cat whiskers. Despite growing up to twelve feet long, they are harmless to humans and pretty much anything that’s not krill or a small fish.
I was not feeling the kitty-cat love with this guy.
Weddell seals also breathe loudly when they’re on the surface, and, even with the wind, I thought I was close enough that I should have heard the seal’s big, snorty huffs of air. I heard nothing.
It heard me, though, the moment I took the first photo.
It rolled over and looked at me.
Weddell seals have rolled over and looked at me before, in water and as they laze on the ice. Usually they look uninterested, or mildly amused at a puffy red two-legs with overlong flippers, holding a small, one-eyed clicking box up at them and cooing about how cute they are.
When this seal looked at me, it was not amused.
Then it started swimming toward me, still staring with its dark, round skull eyes.
Okay, it was weird. I was kind of creeped out. I knew even I could outrun a seal on land. As long as I didn’t tip over the edge of the point, or the wind didn’t blow me over into the water, I would be okay. But this seal was looking at me like it had one thought on its mind: I was prey.
We stared at each other for a long while.
Then it slid silently below the surface and swam away.
I waited a little while and then, deciding the seal wouldn’t return, spent several more minutes taking in the scenery. The cold had killed the battery in my Fuji point-and-shoot, but I was able to take a self-portrait with my trusty Canon PowerShot before it also died.
It was time to start the walk back to my warm room, since the minus 35F wind chill had wormed its way under all my layers and already numbed my toes.
(Sidenote: usually I wear my bedroom slippers, my Fuggs, without socks when I walk to Hut Point. Because, incredibly, they are that warm. Today I thought I might do the accessible part of the Hut Ridge Loop trail. When I tried it last week in my Fuggs, they failed me in both traction and ankle support and I did an impromptu face-plant, followed by a butt slide. So today I wore my trusty merino socks, toe warmers and my hiking boots. Even before I got to Hut Point, my toes were miserably cold. Moral of the story: kids, if you’re coming to Antarctica, buy a pair of Fuggs and you won’t even need socks.)
On the walk back, to get my mind off how cold my toes were, I was thinking about that seal… it had such a different, how can I describe it, vibe about it. I had a suspicion, but I was too excited by the prospect to let myself consider it fully.
When I got back to my room, I went to Google and opened up images of Weddell seals. And then I did the same for… leopard seals. Yes, the second deadliest predator of the Antarctic, after Orcas (colossal and giant squids are not on the deadliest predator list because we just don’t know enough about them). Although they’re about the same length as Weddell seals, leopard seals are more muscular, much more aggressive and will, if they feel like it, attack humans.
One researcher was pulled to her death by a leopard seal in 2003. A few years earlier, another researcher sitting on the edge of an ice floe (okay: dumbass) was pulled into the water by a leopard seal. His colleagues grabbed him and pulled him back onto the ice but couldn’t get the seal to release its hold until repeatedly kicking it in the head with their cramponed boots.
At the McMurdo Station store, they sell a sticker that reads “Leopard Seals: Grizzlies of the Antarctic.”
Yeah, they’re that badass.
If you’ve seen Happy Feet, you may recall Frodo, or whatever the stupid lead penguin’s name was (sorry, not a fan of that movie, except for…) getting chased through the water by a villainous pinniped (my favorite scene in the movie). That was a leopard seal.
I can’t be sure what I saw was a leopard seal. In the gloom of the overcast day, I couldn’t see its nostrils and snout clearly enough to distinguish it from its more mild-mannered close relative, the Weddell seal (together they make for a sort of pinnped Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). I do know that it appeared, in profile, to have the more sloped, less rounded head of a leopard, and that it was enormously long but sleeker than a Weddell. It also breathed far more quietly, more ninja than gassy fat guy.
Either I saw the surliest Weddell around for miles, or today I spotted, no pun intended, my first leopard seal.
Thank you, Antarctica.