Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Polar Bear of the South

I have been looking forward to writing this post but other exciting events keep getting in the way. The first time that I became aware of Hydrurga leptonyx was in reading Endurance, an account of Ernest Shackleton’s struggles on the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. One of his men was almost eaten by this “polar bear of the South.” In fact several years ago, a British diver was grabbed and drowned by a leopard seal in a tragic accident. The leopard seal is the only seal that eats other mammals, and it is ferocious. It hunts seals and penguins with teeth designed for slashing and flaying prey. Its jaws open an awesome 160 degrees for maximum grip. This in addition to its technique of flailing its prey in order to break their necks makes me think of a combined viper/crocodile-like creature. And in fact it does look quite reptilian. This is no downy, big-eyed seal.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw my first leopard seal lounging on an ice floe right next to the station. Its body was over 10 feet long but sleek and sinuous. Its back was dark gray and its belly was a lighter gray with spots, hence the name leopard seal. Amanda and I were no more than 20 feet away on the shore, and it could definitely hear our hushed amazement. It stretched its flippers, which are connected to its body with large flaps of skin such that they resemble bat wings. Then it yawned wide, showing its impressive teeth and pink mouth that was even spotted inside. How cute! Except not.

When others described leopard seals to me before I saw one, their description centered around the observation “And their heads are huge!” When I saw one for myself, all I could think was “And its head is huge!” Even on such a long body, the massive head is out of proportion. And there is something really creepy about their faces. Maybe the jaws are set high on the head, maybe it is just the size of the grin, but you can see for yourself that these are like no other seals. And it is hard to even think of them as seals. They seem to be unique creatures, part polar bear, part snake, part crocodile, part curious dog.

Another part of the mystique of leopard seals is how little is known about them. There is very little information about their lifespan or breeding habits, and in fact one of the leading leopard seal researchers has only twice seen a pup. Leopard seals are known to hang around zodiacs, checking out the passengers, chewing on the ropes and sometimes puncturing an air chamber. So for all their more sinister aspects, they could be called endearing. One was certainly interested in us as we collected water samples one day. It surfaced several times near our boat and I could see its nostrils set high on its snout like a crocodile. I felt so lucky to be sharing the water with this animal that was first in awe of as a child and never dreamed that I would see with my own eyes.

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