I’m no stranger to seals. I’ve lived near salt water most of my life and the barking of these dogs of the sea isn’t new to me. I have fuzzy memories of visiting the elephant seal colony in California as a child and we have seals here in our city parks—in pupping season, we can walk to the beach and find a doe-eyed pup surrounded by police tape, his well-being assured by the pinniped-loving local seal sitting corps.
Our urban fussing does seem a little silly, though, through the lens of spotting seals in Antarctica. At one of our landings, a huge round gray seal, a Weddell, had hauled herself out of the water onto the beach. She had deep red wounds—one above right flipper, one above her ear. The expedition guides assessed that an orca had tried to have her for lunch, and the (somewhat) lucky seal got away. Inspected by the expedition crew, the injured seal was given a good prognosis—she’d take some time to heal, but she was going to make it.
It’s unsettling to be so close to an animal that’s so large. The fur seals are smaller and little more dog-like with their sharper jaws and brown fur. But the Weddells, they lie on the beach and the ice resting or warming up, and they seem to be smiling as they look at you. They look…cuddly. This isn’t so—as with all wildlife in Antarctica, you must keep your distance. It’s fun to share the beach with them, though. They’re quite curious about what’s happening around them, but not so curious that they’ll do much more than look up. I sat on the snow at our first stop and listened to one Weddell whistle—a squeaky high-pitched tone like air squeezed out of a balloon.
In addition to the brown and black fur seals, there were crabeater seals and leopard seals. I can’t confirm for sure that I’ve seen crabeaters—I think there were several of them sprawled across an ice floe one morning as we sailed by, and the one leopard seal we encountered was just a shadow under the Zodiac. It’s just as well. Leopard seals are predatory—at the sight of this skilled hunter, our expedition guide said, “Please, everyone, hands inside the boat.” Leopard seals have a mouth full of teeth, and pictures show an impressive jaw and a certain wily look about the eyes that is less the Weddell’s passive curiosity and more of a “Can I eat this?” glance. I’m okay with seeing a critter that might think I’m lunch from a healthy distance.
Leopard seals aren’t all bad—it’s possible you’ve seen this amazing video about a photographer who was sort of adopted by a leopard seal. While this was surely an amazing experience, I’m happy to stick with the whistling Weddell.