Leopard seal in Antarctica

Leopard seal lounges on the beach in Antarctica © Nate Small

One of my favorite things about Antarctica cruises is always the zodiac excursions.  I’ve done hundreds of these zodiac trips now, and the wildlife encounters never fail to surprise and amaze me.  Today’s excursion was no exception.

As we pull into the bay, I can see some unusual splashing near the shore.  There are a few penguins porpoising in an atypical manor; they are jumping much faster and more frantically than usual.  I know immediately what is happening…the chase is on.

Leopard seal in Antarctica

© Nate Small

Now, the leopard seal has been given a bad rap over the years.  Maybe they aren’t the prettiest looking creatures in the Antarctic Peninsula, but the combination of a dinosaur mixed with a snake trapped in a body that doesn’t fit either of them kind of works for these guys.  They are one of the top predators in Antarctica, and because of that, they tend to be quite curious.  They remind me of the Churchill polar bears up north.  They don’t mean any harm, they are just too curious for their own good sometimes.

Leopard seal in Antarctica

The chase is on! © Nate Small

50% of the time, the leopard seals are living off of krill, just like almost every other marine animal down here.  They take mouthfuls of krill and water and use their teeth to strain out the water.  It’s an extremely effective means of getting ample amounts of energy from the food supply down here, however sometimes the leopards need something a bit more stimulating to do.  Being one of the top predators, they have the brain capacity to do more than just eat and sleep.  I have watched a leopard seal time and time again chase after a penguin, catch it, and then let go of it and swim away.  They will play with their food (obviously bad table manners!) just like a cat will play with a mouse.

As we drive further into the bay to investigate the splashing, the penguin turns and starts jumping straight towards us.  It’s jumping left, then right, then towards us again, impossible to tell where it will come up next.  The leopard seal surfaces in a sleek, powerful roll, mere inches away, but the penguin’s ability to turn on a dime and leap clear keeps him one step ahead of the seal.  As the penguin makes a final desperate dash, it swims right under our zodiac, and the seal- in fast pursuit- gets distracted.

Watch: Nate captured this leopard seal encounter on film by sticking his GoPro under the zodiac. 

The animated squeals coming from passengers in the zodiac and the purr of the gives the leopard seal plenty to examine as it slows down and casually swims around the boat.  It sniffs the boat’s propeller (now turned off) and sizes up the pontoon of the boat – in a fashion slightly unnerving to me – by opening its jaws and seeing if the pontoon fits in its mouth.  It’s not being aggressive in any way, just seeing what we are and what we are doing.

Watch: the leopard seal puts on a little underwater show before leaving the passengers.

After watching us for a while, the leopard seal swims away and tries to find a new playmate, and it seems the penguin has made a clean getaway.  Penguins aren’t always as lucky as this guy was, but such is the way of the wild. Just another exciting day in Antarctica.

Visit Antarctica with Nat Hab and WWF.