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Four Days of Being Fed Penguins

Paul Nicklen
 

Antarctica is truly the last great continent. Always so full of grandeur, legend, mystery, and mind-bending beauty, being in her presence is my addiction. During a National Geographic assignment in South Georgia, Antarctica, I encountered a beautiful leopard seal who loved to blow bubbles in my face. My guess is she was challenging the other seal in my large camera dome (which was her reflection, of course). It is a lot harder to shoot underwater when you are gutting yourself laughing.

I never tire of telling the story of my encounters with incredible animals, and this one will stay with me forever. Leopard seals have often been portrayed as fierce or vicious. In my personal experience, however, they are incredibly smart, curious, and communicative. This female leopard seal tried to feed me penguins for four days straight. Once she realized that I would not even accept dead penguins, she became frustrated and started putting the penguins on top of my head. I honestly believe that she hoped that my head would open up and I would consume the penguins. Through the tears of laughter and excitement, I just kept shooting. This encounter changed my life forever – the images produced from this experience revealed the power of storytelling to challenge preconceived ideas about misunderstood animals.

Below, I have answered some of the most frequently asked questions I have received regarding this leopard seal encounter. As always, thank you for taking the time to inquire and for supporting me on my journey.

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Q: What’s the most incredible photographic moment you’ve experienced?

A: Off the top of my head, I would probably say my leopard seal encounter. Getting into the water with a large apex predator was intense, and I admit feeling fear. But once she started trying to force-feed me penguins, laughter and the overwhelming gratitude of knowing I was experiencing something unique replaced my anxiety. I think of encounters like that as deathbed experiences: the ones that will be worth reflecting on when I one day say goodbye to this life.

Leopard seals live in the frigid Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters and are the only seals of all of the seals that feed on warm-blooded prey, such as other seals.

Q: Can you explain the behavior of the leopard seal?

A: Humans gesture to communicate, and animals are no different. Her open-mouth expressions and bubble-blowing behavior were both attempts to tell me something important, or perhaps just a display of frustration over my continued denial of her fresh penguin offerings. I believe she mistook me for some helpless predator that needed to be taught how to hunt.

Leopard seals use their powerful jaws and long teeth to kill smaller seals, fish, squid, and penguins.

Q: Is photographing leopard seals especially dangerous?

A: There is always an element of danger when shooting underwater with large wild animals, but after thirty-five years of diving in all sorts of conditions with many different species, I felt that I was about as prepared as possible. Back when I was shooting for National Geographic, the real issue lay in the unknown variable: leopard seal behavior. Very few humans had been in the water with them, and they had a reputation for being ferocious predators. I decided to trust the guidance and knowledge of my friend, Göran Ehlmé, who had filmed them for the BBC in previous years. As it turned out, there was less to fear than we had anticipated.

Weighing up to 840 pounds, leopard seals reach an average height of 10 to 11.5 feet. Like most other seals, leopard seals are insulated from frigid arctic waters by a thick layer of fat known as blubber.

Q: Did you immediately understand that the leopard seal was friendly, or were you afraid at first?

A: There is always a feeling of exhilaration and trepidation when you get up close and personal with a large and powerful animal, but after countless encounters with many different species over my career, I knew that the apex predators humans tend to fear are usually just misunderstood. In most cases, they regard humans with simple curiosity. Reading their signals, treating them with respect, and letting them dictate the encounter are the best ways to stay safe. Even when removing personal safety from the picture, no image is ever worth stressing an animal out.

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