Most of the ship was up all night as 50-knot winds howled over the deck, and as the foul weather continued we had to scrap our planned landing at Vernansky Station. Boris announced “Plan B”, and we headed for the solace of protected waters. We reached Port Lockroy Bay and as we started to gear up, the wind stopped, blue sky appeared and suddenly the 4,000-foot peaks encompassing the small bay were freed from clouds. The scene was unreal. The blue skies and ocean against the start white glacial ice made me feel smaller than I have ever felt before. In the kayaks, we were but tiny specs of color winding our way through the massive geologic wonder that is Antarctica.
At the very end of the bay, just at the edge of this massive, 500 foot tall glacier, are two brown cabins with red window sills. It is a small Russian research station and museum, already closed for the winter. We had nearly reached the island when an enormous grey body surfaced behind my friend Gerald’s kayak. The massive black, flaring nostrils lifted out of the water and our guide, Sophie, said “Female leopard seal,” in a very calm voice that brought a hush over our group. Each boat pulled their paddles from the water, and we drifted in silence. Her massive head rose from the water just inches from my kayak. The sheer size of her cranium is enough to make your jaw drop – easily a foot and a half from crown to snout, and just as wide. She kept appearing, getting a look, and then diving. I was snapping photos and focusing on the water about ten feet from the bow of my boat, and then all of a sudden she surfaced, just next to me, within arm’s reach. Her huge black eyes and enormous snout were level with my chest. I stopped breathing and froze - I couldn’t even raise my camera. All my encounters with bears and mountain lions at home in Montana were no longer relevant. This was the largest predator I had ever seen, and undoubtedly the closest I have ever come to one – too close, in fact. She nearly nudged the hull of my boat with her snout and then gracefully dipped beneath the water and glided directly under my kayak. The clear water allowed me to see her whole body pass right under my legs, the dark spots along her coat close enough to count.
Later, at the end of the trip, our guides showed us video taken from a GoPro camera that had been mounted on a hockey stick. While the leopard seal was swimming amidst our kayaks, our guide put the hockey stick camera mount beneath the water, and filmed the leopard seal coming up directly beneath my boat, hanging vertically in the water. I nearly died as I watched the footage of her open her jaws around the hull of my boat, her mouth opening wider than the kayak, as if she was testing the taste of the plastic to see if it was worth a bite! Oh, the things we do not know that take place underwater.
As we made our way back into the open bay, a few of the zodiacs gathered and from the center of our circled vessels the leopard seal appeared again, this time with a live penguin clenched between her giant canines. The seal would burst from the water and thrash the penguin violently from side to side, tearing its neck open and sending bloody water and bits of flesh flying. We learned that while this incredibly tortuous practices appears erratic and random, in fact the seal is incredibly dexterous, and is making calculated incisions in the bird’s chest, removing the outer skin and feathers, feet, and beak, even separating the spine and ribs and leaving only the soft breast meat to be swallowed.