Published: November 2006
Kim Heacox

What was your best experience during this assignment?

A few years ago as an icebreaker was pushing its way through the loose pack ice of Antarctica, I stood on the bow with 30 other people, my eyes drinking up the scenery. I spotted a seal up ahead, asleep on a floe, directly in our path. We had seen seals earlier—large numbers of crab-eaters, a few Weddell seals—and watched them scamper off their floes upon our approach. But this seal didn't budge. "It's a leopard seal," I said. We lifted onto our toes. As we drew nearer, the seal awoke, arched its back, and opened its mouth. The jaw seemed to unhinge itself. We could see long rows of sharp teeth and the eyes gleaming at the sight of new prey. Never mind that we were 40 feet (12 meters) above it on a 300-foot-long (90 meters) ship. From the seal's expression you'd have thought it intended to make a meal of all that machinery and steel. At the last minute it slid off the floe and into the sea, leaving us to stare into deep water, hungry for one last look. But all we could see was a reflection of ourselves. I'll never forget it.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Every austral summer—in late February and early March—the penguins of Antarctica leave their large nesting colonies to spend the season at sea. The adults go first, then the newly fledged chicks. While for most birds fledging means learning to fly, for penguins it means learning to swim. They stand on shore and face the sea. Everything about them says this is where they need to go. The sea is their survival; their breadbasket, filled with fish, squid, and krill. It's a daunting task. Leopard seals are out there waiting, hunting, patrolling for the slow and unwary. They kill hundreds, perhaps thousands, of penguins, thrashing them back and forth with massive jaws. Shredding the meat right off their bones.

Once, in the South Shetland Islands, I stood among a large colony of young gentoo penguins and watched them brave those cold waters. The seals took so many, I couldn't watch anymore. It seemed more sport than hunger, as the seals taught their own young how to hunt. They would catch a penguin, toss it about, let it swim away, then snag it again and again. It went on for hours, and I finally had to walk away.

What was your quirkiest experience during this assignment?

I've made 30 trips to Antarctica, and I've seen many leopard seals. Thinking back on the first time I saw one, the encounter did little to add to the seal's reputation. I'd heard stories about how aggressive and ferocious they are; how they'll take a bite out of your inflatable Zodiac and stare you down with beady eyes in a large dog-like head.

I was in a Zodiac with nine other people, motoring among icebergs on a calm sunny day. We rounded a large berg and came upon a leopard seal on the backside, sprawled out on the ice asleep. Excitement ran through us like high voltage. We kept our distance at first and remained quiet. We turned the outboard off and drifted in, closer and closer, the motors on our cameras whirring softly. The seal was facing us, its eyes closed, mouth twitching, dreaming. We were only about ten feet (three meters) away when suddenly it awoke. It looked up and stared at us. We froze. Then it dropped its head, yawned, and went back to sleep. That was it. Nothing more. The mighty, ferocious leopard seal, bored with a boatload of people, appeared to find more satisfaction in its dreams.