Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to have a leopard seal sink its teeth into the small inflatable boat you’re sitting in on the Antarctic sea amidst white and blue ice floes?
Well, neither did I. But now I know. But before I tell you this story, a word on what we talk about when we talk about going to Antarctica.
Independent travel to Antarctica is impossible. Unless by independent travel you mean going on a true expedition in the fashion of the early explorers, buying your own ship with corporate sponsorship and hiring your own crew, not forgetting to bring dogsleds and ice axes. No human beings live in Antarctica save a handful of scientists in government-run research stations. There are no hotels or restaurants or any other such facilities. In fact, it is illegal under the Antarctic Treaty for any private party to go without a license from one of the treaty signatories.
So going to Antarctica, whether you go from South America or New Zealand, means signing up with an expeditionary cruise. That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s the best way to describe it. It’s like a cruise with a certain level of comfort, but it’s expeditionary in that the comfort might not be much (depending on the ship) and is in any event definitely not the point. At various points around Antarctica, the ship stops and your expeditionary guides take you out on these inflatable boats called Zodiacs before landing for onshore excursions.
So it was that on the morning of day 5 of my voyage, at Mikkelsen Harbor off d’Hainaut Island near the Antarctic Peninsula, I went onboard one of these Zodiacs along with nine other passengers and our pilot and guide. Chris was from Southampton, England, in his early 60s and a former accountant. Word came over the radio soon after we departed that a leopard seal was spotted chilling on an ice floe a short distance away.
“You guys want to see a leopard seal?” Chris asked. A chorus of assent arose. He began to steer the boat in the direction given.
Forgive me for stopping again, but a word on the Zodiacs as well as seals.
“Zodiac” is a brand name like Xerox, the name of the French company that came up with it. Zodiacs are not your little rowboats. They’re thick, rugged things that even militaries use. Each boat has eight inflatable chambers so that if one is punctured, or even two or three, the boat will still stay afloat. The fact the commercial travelers use military grade hardware in this part of the world should tell you something about its environment.
As for the seals, there was a reason we were a bit more excited about a leopard seal than other types common in these parts: the fur seal, the Weddell seal, the elephant seal, and the crabeater seal. All of these other seal species mostly eat krill, the small but abundant creature that is a keystone species in the Antarctic food chain. Even the crabeater seal doesn’t actually eat crabs. (Young male fur seals, though, Myko the former Polish research station commander told us, are known to sexually abuse penguins. They are the teenage thugs of the Antarctic.)
The leopard seal, on the other hand, is a predator species, a hunter that attacks its crabeater cousin all the time; later on this journey I would witness a leopard seal tear a penguin to pieces in the shallows, the bird’s decapitated head floating in the water, uncanny like a toy.
We quickly found the leopard seal on his perch atop an ice floe. Another Zodiac carrying ten more of our fellows was nearby. The leopard raised its distinctive serpentine head and surveyed us curiously. Then it jumped in the water and — rapidly as these creatures adapted for the water over eons only can — began swimming toward the other boat.
“Looks like the leopard wants to play,” said Chris. One or two asked whether the leopard was only playing, but Chris reassured us that the animal did not see rubber boats as targets. “He just wants to play with us.”
We watched the leopard resurface right by the other Zodiac as our fellow travelers oohed and aahed. A few moments later, a splash in the water, and the radio crackled with the voice of the boat’s driver, Nick. “We, uh, have a puncture. We will now return to the ship.” The leopard seal had bitten into their boat and deflated one of its chambers. Remember: these are military grade boats.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Chris said, shaking his head in marvel. “I’ve heard of National Geographic guys having their boats punctured by leopard seals, but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes.”
Then the leopard seal turned toward us.
For a few minutes he swam right by us, right under us, and poked his head out on one side and then the other. One passenger leaned over the side with her Go Pro, and Chris, looking uneasy, asked her to fall back, just in case the leopard grabbed her.
And then it happened, a second time. A splash in the water, a bump against us from the starboard side aft, and a palpable and literal sinking feeling under our buttocks. The leopard seal had sunken its teeth into our boat as well.
Chris got on the radio. “Uh, this is Chris. We also have been punctured and will be returning to the ship now....” As it turned out, as exciting as it was for us to have the leopard seal come after our boat, the puncture represented more than a small headache, as the Zodiacs could not be repaired while we were at sea. Chris got back on the radio to answer for what had just happened. “We were just backing off when he took a bite....” he said sheepishly.
Antarctica is full of surprises even for the most experienced guide.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."