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STEVE JONES

Steve Jones - Photographing leopard seals in Antarctica

"The moment we entered the water, the leopard seal instantly engaged us and was then quickly joined by two more. A nervous Antarctic fur seal made a quick exit from the water, launching itself at full speed on to the rocks away from the trio……"

Such was my account of a meeting with these incredible animals at Astrolabe Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. Second only to orca as the apex predator in this region, leopard seal encounters are rarely short of thrilling. Their bold and inquisitive nature however, belies a gentleness that you would not expect in such a powerful animal. Read more below...

The leopard seals are attracted to the shores of Astrolabe by the masses of chinstrap penguins that nest on the island. They have evolved into fast, agile predators, which is essential if their varied diet is to include these perfectly adapted marine birds. The seals patrol the shallows near the penguins’ entry and exit points. The sight of a cumbersome looking mammal clad in a neoprene suit however, was enough to get the attention of the three metre long seals.

They moved toward us, gliding effortlessly through the freezing waters. They seem intent on giving my colleagues and I equal attention, moving amongst us one at a time, meeting us face to face. The dome lens of my camera was particularly enticing for them – they "mouthed" their own reflection, the huge jaw opening its full arc whilst only inches away from me. I wasn’t sure if it was playful or a threat posture and even though I’d been forewarned to expect this behaviour, it tested my nerve to the limit the first time it happened. However, it quickly became apparent that they intended us no harm whatsoever.

These normally solitary animals also played with each other, much like our own dogs at home, dancing and “mouthing” each other, shoulder to shoulder. It was an insight into natures most advanced predators in perfect harmony, one that I shall never forget.

Photographing the seals involved lengthy submersions in water that touched -1.8 degrees C, sometimes for over 2 hours at a time. I made full use of Fourth Elements layering capabilities and the stretch qualities of the garments enabled me to maintain essential manoeuvrability whilst still benefiting from outstanding thermal protection. I used Drybase and Xerotherm Plus layered below the Xerotherm Arctic under a crushed neoprene drysuit.

visit Steve Jones website: www.millionfish.com

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