Stalking seals and seal stalking
20 February 2014 | 64 49.5'S:063 29.6'W, Port Lockroy
Revitalised from a day off, and having woken to brilliant blue skies, Andrew and Ruth were ashore early to film. With the chicks starting to fledge, and preparing to take to the water, we've increasingly spotted Leopard Seals in the bay. A good omen for when Doug Allan arrives later in the week to film underwater. As we drove back from the Island for lunch, we spotted a Lep patrolling the shallows around the island. Keen to get a better idea of their behaviour, we took on a bit of Seal Stalking. Unfortunately it didn't last very long, as she shook us off pretty sharpish, but I felt very intrepid, spotting her surfacing in the distance, and gently motoring to where we though her last position was. Little did I know that the seal was plotting to destroy my rugged intrepid image, and the stalked was soon to become the stalker.
With the warm weather and the rain of the previous day, the glacier at the back of the bay has become highly active. We regularly hear it rumbling away, often followed by a big crack as a chunk of ice falls off and sets the boat rolling with a mini-tsunami. Most of the ice floats harmlessly past us and out of the bay, occasionally donking down the side of the hull and requiring some poking with a boat hook to help it on its way. But occasionally, a big bit threatens to snag our anchor chain, or get stuck on the keel, and requires launching the dinghy as quickly as possible and shoving the ice away from the boat. On this occasion we heard a particularly large thud on the bow, as a piece as long and probably twice as wide as the boat snagged us. I ran on deck to find Dave, all his weight lent on the increasingly flexing boat hook, and so I quickly launched the dinghy. With Pelagic's engine on, we created enough distance between us and the berg to get the dinghy in and start pus hing the ice away. Whilst all this had been going on, Dave had casually pointed to a leopard seal in the water, probably the one I'd been stalking.
As I sat, bow of the zodiac on the iceberg, the leopard seal popped up about 20foot away, playing round the underwater ice, using it as a scratching post and generally being quite cute. Then it stopped still in the water, and looked straight at me. It spy-hopped about 2foot out of the water to get a better look at me, and then turned and swam in my direction. I must admit, my heart skipped a beat and I panicked.
Let me tell you a little about leopard seals; it is hard to estimate the size of them from photos, this one was longer than my dinghy, and in the water, dark dark grey, almost black, with a flash of white on its underside. They have slitherin eyes and long muscular bodies, known for violent penguin hunts, and are renowned for chewing zodiac tubes. Without a modicum of bravery I turned and legged it for the safety of the yacht, at full throttle, squealing like a girl. Dave, rather unsympathetically I thought, from the safety of the yacht, told me that the ice needed moving and that he thought the leopard seal had swum away anyway. So I tentatively went round the back of the yacht and headed for the iceberg again. A head popped up in front of me, she was most definitely still there, swimming back and forth in front of the ice protectively. As I inched closer, she ducked under and swam in my direction again. Like brave Sir Robin in Monty Python's Holy Grail, I turned and bravely ran away. Again. Squealing. Dave, only slightly more sympathetically, and not even trying to hide his laughing, put Andrew and a boat hook in the dinghy, to Ã"poke it away'. But that lep had decided that it was her iceberg, and it was staying where it was. That was final. We continued this game for quite some time, whereby I drove towards the ice, and she chased me away again, often catching glimpses of her white belly as she swam under the dinghy. With Andrew clearly increasingly running out of patience, I resolved that this time I would be brave, and not squeal, but it was no use, as I high-tailed it back to the boat, the zodiac on the plane, I glanced over my shoulder to see a leopard seal, mid-porpoise, classic hunting behaviour.
Its worth noting that there has only ever been one reported incident of a person being eaten by a lep, and the lady in question was diving (looking like a penguin) whilst the lep was hunting (for penguins). Generally they are considered to be curious, playful, inquisitive creatures, albeit ones that like to chew the rubber sponsons of zodiacs. In hindsight, I'd created a great game for her to play, Ã"chase me, chase me', but at the time, I was very aware of the fact that she was huge. Luckily for us, and my dignity, she eventually took interest in the dinghy tied behind the other yacht, Podorange, and swam in that direction. Jean, the mate onboard, handled it with typical Gallic cool, and simply stood in his dinghy, poked a paddle in her general direction, before chasing her away, generally making me feel like a wuss. As the designated driver when we started filming them underwater,I was going to have to get over my entirely rational fear of massive seals with big teeth swimmi ng at me.
Despite my having lost any semblance of being roughty-toughty, this Lep (I'm calling her Fred) brought the total of confirmed seals in Lockroy to 4. Great news for the film team, especially as you normally only get two to a colony.
The leopard seal encounter was one of three near death experiences I felt I survived that day. The second being when I went to collect water from a glacial run-off. Despite being nowhere near an ice cliff (don't worry Mum) I made a rather quick exit when the whole mountain emitted a large boom as the glacier shifted internally.
My final, and frankly most traumatic event occurred at the end of the day, when having made the decision to tackle the cleaning and organising of the forepeak, I discovered a carton of milk had leaked into the bilges, possibly two to three weeks previously. Whatever breed of cheese we were now making in the forepeak could surely have killed a man at twenty paces. Just goes to show that working on yachts is not all blue skies, stalking seals and playing with penguins.