Published: November 2006
Paul Nicklen

What was your best experience during this assignment?

This was the most satisfying assignment of my career. Leopard seals are the most incredible animals I've ever had the pleasure of photographing. When you get in the water with a wild animal, you're essentially giving yourself to that animal because, as humans, we're quite helpless and vulnerable in the water. You're at the seal's mercy. You're at the predator's mercy.

It was very humbling to have this animal accept me and be gentle and interact with me in the way it did. Not only did the leopard seals not attack as some predicted they would, they fed me penguins, followed me around, and generally put on a nonstop show. I've photographed many different species around the world, but this assignment will stay with me forever.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

The worst experience was crossing the Drake Passage in a 48-foot (15 meters) sailboat. Everyone I spoke with before the trip informed me that it would be tough—the ride from hell—but I just smiled, knowing that I rarely get seasick.

On the first day going around Cape Horn, I couldn't walk because it was too rough in 50-knot winds and 20-foot (6 meters) seas. I couldn't do anything. I was absolutely incapacitated from seasickness. The crew—some of the best expedition sailors in the world—were up sailing, singing songs, and making sure the boat was in good shape. All three of them rotated through shifts, mostly staying awake for five days straight to cross the Drake Passage, one of the biggest feats of dedication I've ever seen. By the end of the crossing, they were exhausted. But all I did was hang on in my bunk.

I used to dream of sailing around the world in my own boat. That dream no longer exists.

What was your quirkiest experience during this assignment?

Antarctic summer is the one time a year for leopard seals to really gorge themselves on chubby penguins. Late in the day, the seals just play with the penguins—put them on the ice, release them multiple times, then take them down by their feet. If the penguin looked weak, the seal would take it back up to the surface and revive it. It was like a toy for them, like a cat playing with a mouse or a dog playing with a toy.

One seal brought a penguin over to me. I didn't touch it; I just sat there and photographed. The penguin took off, and the seal grabbed it, brought it back to me, and put it on my camera dome again.

Eventually the seal got upset and started blowing bubbles at me. It was the most fascinating interaction I've ever had.