Most people have seen the incredible photos by Canadian biologist and photographer Paul Nicklen, but some may not have heard the whole story behind the shots. I watched a Ted Talk entitled “Tales of Icebound Wonderlands”, which told the story of his trip to the Antarctic, where he had a close encounter with a fearsome predator.
Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are formidable predators that can reach up to 12ft in length. Similar to the cat they’re named after, they have thick spotted coats and a mouthful of long teeth.
In his conference talk in 2011, Paul Nicklen explained how leopard seals have received a bad reputation in recent years, quite unjustly. Just like lions, bears and wolves, they hunt to survive. He made a quip that the reason leopard seals were given a bad press was that they ate Happy Feet. Yet, the lion prides of the Serengeti live off Bambi.
Nicklen was travelling with a Swedish companion, and whilst on the boat they experienced a hit to the hull by a leopard seal. Naturally, the first thing the photographer did was dive straight in the water. As Nicklen rightly pointed out, National Geographic don’t print excuses.
The seal, a high-spirited female, swam straight over, and proceeded to give Nicklen a close-up of her open maw, displaying a set of savage teeth. However, it seemed the seal was smiling instead of growling, as she proceeded to bring Nicklen a penguin to snack on.
Unfortunately, Nicklen was untrained in the hunting of penguins, so the bird had a lucky escape. Unfazed, the seal returned with another, and another. When each followed the last in its escape, the seal presumed Nicklen a poor hunter, so instead brought him dead individuals. Nicklen began to fear he would offend the seal and make her aggressive, but she continued to work tirelessly, despite her attempts being fruitless.
Finally, the seal flipped onto her back and bared her teeth once again, this time making a concerning clicking noise. Nicklen began to fear the worst when the female darted straight past him. The photographer turned to witness her seeing off another seal, and returning with yet another penguin. This behaviour made my jaw drop – a predator competing with thousands of others for sustenance spent four days’ worth of hunting time feeding this strange creature in her territory. The animal’s compassion and dedication was awe-inspiring.
By the end of his speech, Paul Nicklen was fighting back tears. Seeing his passion and visible emotion was incredible to witness. It makes me proud to be a wildlife photographer, and inspires me to work as hard as I can to achieve a fraction of what Paul Nicklen has in his career so far.
None of these images are mine – watch the story behind them at Ted2011.