Leopold is Cape Crozier’s most prominent resident leopard seal. He patrols the beaches every day in search of unsuspecting penguins. Yesterday we watched him catch 4 in a row. The first three got away, but the fourth wasn’t so lucky.
Kirsten and I were standing on the ice foot on the beach, a good 6 feet off the surface of the water, when Leopold came to check us out – he popped his head out of the water right under our feet, stared us in the eye, sniffed the air, and soon lost interest, swimming off in search of more palatable and accessible prey. Being scrutinized by a 10-foot predator was enough to raise the hair on the back of my head. I also had a keen awareness of how easily the tables could have turned had we been in the water alongside him, though I’m not sure which would be worse: -1.8 degree water or an overly curious leopard seal?
Penguins stand around for hours along the shore or at the edge of ice floes waiting for enough critical mass before taking the group plunge into the icy water. Leopard seals have trouble catching penguins in open water, and they are useless predators when hauled out, but they lurk in the water at the transition between ice and sea, or land and sea as the case may be, waiting for a disoriented penguin to slow down enough before jumping in or out. “Safety in numbers” is penguin-at-sea rule #1.
“Jump high” is rule #2. Bouncing off the ice edge and back into the water could have very dire consequences. This penguin had a hard landing, but at least he was safe from Leopold’s reach.