Leopard seals in Antarctica – How to photograph this incredible predator

Six wildlife photographers share their most memorable encounters with a deadly predator. 

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Portfolio: Leopard seals opening pages

Six wildlife photographers share their most memorable encounters with a deadly predator. 

Deceptive hunter by Andy Rouse

A leopard seal reclines on its icy lounger amid the freezing waters of Antarctica. It’s a peaceful image that belies the true nature of this voracious predator.

Leopard seals are huge – females can reach up to 3.7m in length and up to 350kg in weight – and come second only to orcas in the ranking of the region’s most powerful hunters.

Leopard seals congregate in the Antarctic during the brief summer – between November and January – to give birth on the pack ice before mating again for the following year. With the onset of winter, the seals disperse once more, heading north to sub-Antarctic islands.

British photographer Andy Rouse came across this laid-back individual on a trip in 2006: “The seal was interested in us, but because we approached carefully, it didn’t seem worried and was still lying there when we left – the ideal wildlife encounter.”

© FLPA/naturepl.com

Preparing for attack by Doug Allen

A hunting leopard seal circles beneath an ice floe, listening for the sound of penguins and crabeater seals moving around on the frozen shelf above, poised to ambush any that dare enter the water.

British photographer Doug Allen watched this particular seal catching unsuspecting emperor penguins as they slid into the sea amid a flurry of bubbles. 

“A leopard seal’s temperament is a mix of wariness, curiosity and predatory intelligence,” he says. “It is an extremely clever and adaptable animal. It took me a few dives to gain this seal’s confidence – eventually, he came close enough for me to get this shot.”

Lounging around by Rinie Van Meurs

In between bouts of hunting, relaxation is clearly important for leopard seals. From a boat, Dutch photographer Rinie Van Meurs watched this individual rolling around on the ice.

“Most of the time leopard seals just resemble big sausages, but this one was a bit different. It wasn’t until after I had taken the image that I realised the seal looked as if it was laughing at us.” But what a sinister laugh it is.

The seal’s open mouth reveals its incredibly powerful jaws, filled with long, backward-curved teeth – perfect for seizing slippery prey such as fish and sieving krill from the water.

© BBC Wildlife magazine/ Goran Ehlme

Intimidating jaws by Göran Ehlmé

With jaws agape, a leopard seal moves in to finish off a penguin it has savaged.

Like all ‘true seals’, its streamlined body is powered by muscular rear flippers that can propel the animal to speeds of up to 38kmph in small bursts – just enough to outpace penguins underwater, while its huge foreflippers provide surprising agility.

When faced with a predator of this size and ferocity, even the most experienced photographers must be cautious.

“Like any other creature, the leopard seal is unpredictable,” says Göran Ehlmé, the Swedish photographer who captured this intimidating moment. “I’ve often experienced a leopard seal swimming straight at me, jaws wide open. When this first happened, I was afraid, thinking it was about to attack – but it was only a threat.

Every seal is different, and the key is to stay wary. You can enjoy their grace and power, but you need to be ready to get out of the water quickly if you notice any strange or skittish behaviour.” 

© BBC Wildlife magazine/Andre Crone/Todd Pusser

Caught in the act by André Crone

Seizing a gentoo penguin by its feet, a leopard seal drags the unfortunate bird below the surface of the water to drown it.

“The boat crew and my fellow divers said I was crazy when I told them my goal was to take pictures of a leopard seal attacking a penguin. They thought it would be impossible to get close enough,” says Dutch photographer André Crone.

“We located a seal feeding, catching every penguin it could. I entered the water and swam cautiously towards the animal. It was big, almost three metres long – much larger than I had expected.

I was lucky, though – the seal caught a penguin almost immediately and started playing with it, which gave me the chance to take the pictures I had travelled to Antarctica to get.”

Playing with prey by Todd Pusser

The strangely serpentine head of a leopard seal breaks the water surface, flipping a decapitated penguin into the air.

Though this behaviour, captured by photographer Todd Pusser, may seem like brutal play, seals often shake newly-killed prey and beat the carcasses against the water in order to flay the flesh into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

However, some observers claim to have seen leopard seals playing with prey in this manner, but not actually eating it. 

© Goran Ehlme

Dangerously close by Göran Ehlmé

Fearlessly approaching a diver, this huge leopard seal illustrates why swimming with these spectacular animals is not for the faint-hearted. But not all encounters with leopard seals live up to their fearsome reputation.

“One summer, I got to know a female seal and named her ‘Yellowbelly’,” photographer Göran Ehlmé recalls. “She was a large animal and loved to keep me company while I was filming or taking photos. She would often tickle my neck with her whiskers (which was a little disconcerting at first) and follow me on dives, even to depths of up to 30 metres.

When I was back in my boat, she would sleep next to the hull, her hoarse breathing keeping me awake at night.

She started to kill penguins for me – up to five a day – and would surround me with their pitiful carcasses, but thankfully she eventually lost interest and returned to being an observer.” 

 

 

To find out more about the amazing Frozen Planet click here

See more photography from Antarctica in Nick Garbutt's photo gallery here

You've met the leopard seal, for penguins, wolves and whales click here

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