Photographer Paul Nicklen was on assignment in Antarctica where he was getting footage on leopard seal. The encounter took place in 2006, but the video footage has just been remixed and is gaining more attention due to interest on social media sites. What happened that day is something the National Geographic photographer will not soon forget. He continues to speak at engagements to share his story.
During the assignment, he spent time photographing leopard seals. Sea lions, as they are also called, are one of the largest seals in the ocean and their main predators are killer whales. Naturally, anything that people perceive as a threat becomes scary. One example of an attack was with biologist Kirsty Brown, who was taken under water by a massive sea lion and drowned while she was snorkeling in 2003. Though they are perceived as the ocean’s predators and he has heard stories of their deadly attacks, he set out to determine if they were really like that..
Nicklen had a rare experience with one of them in particular. On the first day of the assignment, his first impression of a 1,000 female leopard seal was one of confirmation. He and his team watched as she tore into a penguin and ripped it apart to eat the meat.
He was coaxed into the water to take advantage of the rare experience, but he was scared. He was vulnerable and “at the predator’s mercy.” His goal was to stay with the penguins because she kept going back to them as a source of food. He could get more shots by staying in her radar. It also meant he could be easily mistaken for food. Quite unexpectedly, the strong predator took his entire head and his camera into her mouth.
She released him, however, and he knew that everything would be fine. Rather than attacking him, the leopard seal not only set him free, but she began to take care of him, as she did over the next few days. She began by offering him live penguins. She repeatedly brought him one penguin after another. He describes how she appeared to be frustrated that he would not eat them.
When that did not work, she played with the penguins for a while to tire them out before offering them to Nicklen. She even ripped off pieces and tried to feed them to the photographer. At times, she presented the penguins in an entertaining way, twirling around with them before offering them to him. Eventually she ended up tossing them on his head.
Not only did the leopard seal try to feed him, but she also protected him and scared off another leopard seal when it approached. She stole its penguin and gave that to Nicklen, as well.
The experience left Nicklen with a very different view about the leopard seal. His personal experience did not show them as harmful creatures. In fact, they were very accommodating and this one, in particular, took care of him and tried to feed him over the course of his four-day stay in the Antarctic. In the process, he was able to capture unique photos of the sea creatures. He continues to appear at special events to talk about his experience that day, as well as his other animal encounters.
By Tracy Rose