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The seal's reputation took another dark turn in July 2003 when Kirsty Brown, a 28-year-old marine biologist snorkeling off the Antarctic Peninsula, was grabbed, pulled down, and drowned. Her colleagues worked for an hour to revive her, but could not.

Leopard seals had punctured inflatable boats. They had now and then harassed people. But never before had they caused a documented human fatality.

"It makes a better story to tell about a ferocious animal than it does to tell about a curious one," says Ehlmé. "People tend to judge animals in frightening moments. But these seals, they are mostly curious. I tell other divers, 'If you get scared, just close your eyes. Then open them. The seal won't bite you, but it will be very close.' " (Antarctic research stations now advise anyone not studying leopard seals to postpone a dive, or to get out of the water, when they see one nearby.)

Photographer Paul Nicklen took Ehlmé's advice as he slipped into the cold sea of Antarctica and found an animal capable of ferocious acts and delicate gestures. Before his eyes a leopard seal—sometimes only inches away—would shred a penguin, or offer it to him whole.

As Shakespeare wrote in Othello, a reputation is "oft got without merit and lost without deserving." Perhaps it comes down to this: We cannot know a seal, or any wild animal, until we gently enter its home, where it keeps the truest part of itself. In so doing we learn more about ourselves, another top predator, forever curious.

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