On my first zodiac cruise in Antarctica we approached a large Leopard Seal resting on a small ice floe when out of the water popped a Gentoo penguin. That penguin took one look and quickly departed. Either the seal was full or just uninterested but that day there was no penguin carnage. That was one lucky Gentoo Penguin!
On several other trips I had the chance to photograph the lizard like head and wicked smile either alone on ice or with another seal. The leopard seals are curious but unconcerned with our presence. Sometimes lifting a massive head and showing those dangerous teeth.
On yet another trip we were being shuttled to shore for a landing at Cuverville Island when the driver stopped to give us a chance to see a leopard seal in the water. Keep your hands inside the boat was the driver’s warning. The seal lifted itself high out of the water to get a better look at us. When the boat began moving to shore again the leopard seal began to follow. It kept up pretty well, and I began considering what it would be like to share the beach with him. As I looked back it seemed he would be joining us when suddenly without warning he lost ground. But no we weren’t losing him – he had lost interest in us. The next time he surfaced he had a penguin in his mouth.
Walking the beach you will often encounter the skeletal remains of a penguin. The interesting thing is that while the bones are picked clean the fleshy feet and flippers remain.
I’ve been to Cuverville many times in March and each time the spotted leopard has given me a spectacle more intense than the last. Much like a cat with a mouse they often play with the penguin whether they eat it or not. As the seal grabs the penguin by the feet it thrashes the misfortunate penguin repeatedly on the water tossing it up and eating chunks of flesh. All the while the small Wilson Storm Petrel is flitting around for scraps and the gulls and Giant Petrels wait their turn. As you watch, you just have to remember that everyone needs to eat.
If you have an interest in seeing these amazing seals up close and personal we would love to arange a voyage for you.