Story Behind the Shot: The Hunting Leopard Seal

Natalia Chervyakova, first place "Behavior" winner in our Ocean Art Contest, visits the Antarctic Peninsula to photograph the deadly leopard seal

By Natalia Chervyakova

 

 
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Natalia's shot, "Hunting Leopard Seal," won first place in the "Marine Life Behavior" category of our 2011 Ocean Art Contest.

 

Location

My shot was taken in Antarctica, in one bay of the Antarctic Peninsula, during a dive expedition with Waterproof Expeditions on the Professor Molchanov liveaboard. We were there during the high-south autumn, in the beginning of March, which is the best time for diving the Antarctic. 

 

Our expedition in the Antarctic Peninsula

 

Water temperature was around -1ºC (30.2 ºF) and visibility was far from perfect due to windy and stormy weather. Sometimes visibility in shallow water and on the surface was so bad that I couldn’t see anything beyond a few metres. For someone hoping to get a photo session with a leopard seal, these were not the best conditions at all!

 

The Subject

My winning photo shows the leopard seal with a gentoo penguin caught in its grips.

The leopard seal is the largest shallow diving krill-eater. Although he is famous for being a predator of larger animals and has been known to hunt penguins, fur seals and even adult female elephant seals, these are seasonal and only occasional additions to the leopard seal's diet, which includes variety of fish and squid but is dominated by krill.

 

The magnificent hunting leopard seal.

 

Leopard seals are among the largest seals on earth. While very few leopard seals have actually been measured, there have been reported lengths of around 3.8 metres from nose to tail. However, most leopard seals seen in the Antarctic Peninsula are much smaller, between 2.5 and 3 metres in length.

The leopard seal is a smart and artful hunter, but an adult penguin is not easy prey for him. Adults are fast swimmers. The best is to catch the penguin’s chick, with their fat bodies and limited diving skills.

 

Penguin chicks.

 

A successful hunter usually plays with his victim like a cat plays with a mouse. He removes the penguin's skin and eats the fat only. Fat is the most important and valuable thing in icy cold water. The rest, meat and bones, fall down to the bottom of the sea and become a meal for starfish and amphipodes. We witnessed the leopard seal catch and eat four penguines in a matter of half an hour.

 

Leopard seal on the hunt.

 

Sometimes the hunting leopard seal likes to demonstrate his power by playing with the penguin in front of the camera. It’s a terrible and strangely attractive scene, but you should always keep in mind that there is huge predator nearby and nobody knows what he might do next.

 

The Shot

Bad visibility and cloudy weather would not stop my ‘model’ from posing for the camera. The female leopard seal was in preoccupied with her penguin and let me stay very close. Just when waves pushed me so close that my camera’s lens almost touched the victim, the leopard seal reminded me who is who in these waters. Our photo session took about ten minutes, but it didn't feel longer than a few seconds. 

I would like to thank our dive guide, Jonas Sundquist, who gave me the amazing opportunity to take underwater shots of the hunting leopard seal and to feel so close to wild nature.

 

My Set-Up

My winning photograph was taken using a Nikon D80 in a Nexus housing and Tokina 10-17 mm fish-eye lens. For lighting I used two Inon Z-240 strobes.

Settings were F/4,5, 1/60 sec, ISO 250.

 

 

Paul Nicklen's Leopard Shark Encounter

See Paul Nicklen's famous, incredible video of an up-close encounter with a leopard shark in the Antarctic. 

 

About the Author

Natalia Chervyakova is the first place winner in the "Marine Life Behavior" category of our 2011 Ocean Art Contest. 

 

Further Reading

 


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