Leopard Seals & Approaching The White Continent

For photographers and partygoers alike, the days following New Year’s Eve involved a large quantity of naps.  Luckily for us, another multi-day ocean crossing was in store, and time to rest was plentiful.  We wandered listlessly through the shiny hallways, drugged on scopolamine patches and desalinated coffee, sleeping when we felt like it, and eating a large amount of cookies.  The skies were stormy and grey.  Time blended into a seamless blur of falling asleep and waking up, attending lectures, and eating.

This picture, which I have named “The Perpetually Moving Hallway,” will forever invoke the sensation of rocking back and forth to the surge of the ocean swells.

A highlight, however, were lectures given by Rick, the ship’s marine biologist, who had spent a large portion of his life working on a British research station on the remote South Orkney Islands.  An accomplished scuba diver, Rick entertained us with photos and stories of diving under the ice with krill and various species of seals.  Old photos of a 25-year-old Rick, neon-clad in 70’s style, depicted him crossing mountains on skis with a baby seal poking its head out of his backpack, shooting off flares as a farewell to departing supply ships, and participating in an annual footrace across melting sea ice, where the goal was to make it as far as possible without crashing through the ice into the freezing water.  (If anyone can remember the name of the race, help me out!).  His lectures, photographs and true stories were absolutely incredible – and as luck would have it, conditions were favorable as we neared the South Orkney Islands.  Rick was ecstatic at the rare opportunity to “go home”,  and for an afternoon we had the chance to venture ashore!

Low temperatures and freezing rain made for a frigid landing that day, and I was thus uninspired to remove my mittens to take pictures for more than a few minutes at a time.  However, what we did see through the fog was stunning.  Our zodiacs pulled onto shore in front of a giant glacier that periodically calved into the sea.  The piece of rocky shore that remained snow-free was covered in nesting chinstrap penguins, which we had fun watching dive in and out of the water.  As awkward and clumsy as the birds are on land, it’s remarkable how skilled they are as marine creatures, and the force with which they explode out of the water is both hilarious and fascinating.

It is also worth mentioning that while on this trip, I became mildly obsessed with Paul Nicklen’s book Polar Obsession. A National Geographic photographer working in polar climates, Nicklen photographed an unbelievable encounter with a leopard seal that filled me with a fascination with the animals, and a desire to see one in action.  Leopard seals, giant reptilian-looking creatures reminiscent of dinosaurs, kill penguins by flicking them back and forth so violently that the penguin is actually turned inside-out, and the meat separates from the feathered skin to be better enjoyed by the seal.  Needless to say, Nicklen’s photograph of this is mind-blowing and can be found on his website.

HOWEVER, while shivering and watching the chinstraps on that South Orkney beach, I noticed a disturbance in the water offshore.  A huge reptilian head slipped above the surface – a leopard seal, right by the penguins diving into the water!  I was thrilled.  True to legend, as I watched the seal in the distance, it proceeded to capture a penguin and destroy it by the method described.  While quite brutal, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime sight.  This joins the cheetah chase of 2005 as one of the most amazing wildlife action moments I have ever witnessed.  And, you’ll never guess – I got a photo!  While blurred and heavily pixelated due to the sheer distance between myself and the seal, here is the penguin slaughter in action.  I already feel one step closer to someday achieving Nicklen’s mad skills.

OMG!

South Orkney experience accomplished, we sailed for the Antarctic peninsula.  One by one, our first real icebergs, those surreal mountains, slabs and spires of ice, began to appear in the distant haze.  We gathered excitedly on the bridge to watch them fade in and out of view as the Sea Spirit glided amongst them, an otherworldly pink hue tinging the sky and blurring the horizon.  It was the sensation of arrival on another planet, or another universe entirely; a place where nobody goes, yet here we were.

A new energy raced through the ship as we neared Antarctica, jolting us with its wild excitement and euphoric disbelief.  We were approaching the true End of the World.

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