Saturday, 9 April 2016

Sinister Reptilian

Leopard Seal (Hydruga leptonyx)

Essentially solitary and circumpolar in distribution, usually on outer edges of pack ice, but does range widely to most Subantarctic islands, including South Georgia and the Falklands. Adult females, considerably larger than males, reach a length of some 12ft (4m), males about 10ft (3.5m). Upperparts darkish grey and underparts light grey, with spotting on throat, shoulders and sides- amount of spotting varies. Overall appearance rather reptilian, with a disproportionately large head for its long, slim body line. At close quarters the wide gape and three- pointed cusp- type teeth are distinctive.

Now fairly uncommon, although at one time was a regular visitor to certain beaches. There is one unconfirmed record of breeding. More commonly seen in winter, but may haul out at any period of the year. Appear to prefer open sandy beaches, or perhaps they are more difficult to spot on rocky surfaces. Feeds on a wide range of food, taking fish, squid, krill, other species of seal and penguins. Perhaps due to its carnivorous habits and appearance, has rather a bad reputation for being fierce toward man; however, there are no recorded incidents of unprovoked attacks. Perhaps in time this reputation will change in much the same way as it has done with the Killer Whale.

Ian J Strange
Wildlife of The Falkland Islands & South Georgia

Leaving the ruggedness of the M25 circular, and driving to Cape Dolphin Farm to part with the modest fee to the owner, a whole new panoply opens up. Cape Dolphin is wild! The only way to travel it is off road in a 4x4; at best, there are sections of grass- track or muddied path but for the most part; bog and heath. We got stuck on one occasion, trying to cross a water filled gully. Reaching the summital point on the Cape, the sea emerges as a restless panorama, offering vibrant felicitations to the eye, but only brooding comfort to the heart. 

Making camp just above the strandline on a long isolated beach on Cape Dolphin, we took in our surroundings. The Cape is uninhabited and projects out like a long stubborn yet optimistic finger into the South Atlantic ocean. Following your eye line out beyond the kelp forests, there is nothing but wild restless ocean. 1000 miles north is the eastern coast of Argentina. Beyond that, looking north from a different angle; nothing but 4000 miles of ocean until you reach Greenland. Staring out on this vista was the only time in my life I had realized what it means to be alone.

It was New Years’ Eve and we were the only people on the Cape. There were no people for maybe 100 square miles and no signs of human existence, save for an old makeshift square- shaped pen half full with faded buoys, frayed fishing ropes and bleached pieces of plastic rejected with caprice by the wild ocean. That is when she hadn’t absorbed the junk wholesale into her dark churning stomach, never to be seen again.

The sheer feast of wildlife this eminence of rock throws up is a wonderment of the improbable as though the eyes are disembodied and floating slightly in a bacchanalian reverie. You are invited to just let the carnival proceed in a flow of its own time and making. Like looking down the eyepiece of a microscope, the sea floor has been magically uplifted to reveal a strange land of diverse and extravagant living forms. Driving along the Cape, alien landscapes of deep scarlet sorrel, punctured by vivid greens of Bog Balsam are oddly juxtaposed with the browns and fauns of dry heath. Occasionally, there are Quartzite dolomites, or violent blow outs where jealous crying winds have gouged out chunks of land.

Magellanic penguins shuffle freely about, sometimes stumbling or sliding drunkenly into a hollow. They resemble a care home where the inmates have taken over the drug cabinet and randomly walk about carelessly.   The periphery of the Cape gives way to precipitous cliffs, slopes and even giant dunes peppered by the zigzag of penguin paths. Rock cormorants cling to cliff faces in their letter box colonies. Where the land graciously extends  to the sea, large inland saline lagoons form with many thousands of squabbling waders geese and seagulls. These form extensive open coastal greens in places, which communicate with the sea when the tidal moods of the witch- Moon command it.


Eye opening: encouraging sign.

The extremities of bleak coastline are haunted by Neptune, who heaps angy trident blows of waves on endlessly stoic Silurian- Devonian rocks. Southern Petrels nurture their pterodactyl young here, giving the sensation that time has not changed this place since the dinosaurs were alive. Meanwhile with declamatory red chest plumage, darting amongst the cushion plants, curious Falkland thrushes dance with plovers under the worldly watchful and greedy eyes of the Caracara. All flowers are open in this misdsummer saturnalia and furnish the air with the inebriation of exotic perfumes. To this euphony of spice are mixed Christmas Bush, Coastal Nassauvia, and the camphor of Bog Balsam.

Setting camp, although as one, we suddenly looked up and along the mile- long sandy beach towards the trajectory of the setting sun. What propelled us to do so, can only be described as a force greater than ourselves. “Look, a leopard seal!” From a distance of maybe a quarter of a mile, we instinctively knew it was a leopard seal. I have never seen one before apart from on TV or books, but even from that distance it was distinctly so, lying high up on the shore and motionless. Taking cameras, and abandoning our unfolding camp, we just moved as quick as we could towards it, knowing this was a rare once in a lifetime event. It seemed pre ordained.

Approaching with caution, we could see the creature was not fully alert, and looked entirely exhausted. Knowing as I do now, that leopard seals are rare visitors to Falkland, and rarer still in summer, and that they most often come from South Georgia, a swim of 1550km, the state of exhaustion is not surprising. Given the size difference between males and females, I am going to say I think it was probably a female, as she was a good size. Even though she was motionless, we gave her plenty of respect and kept a reasonable distance. Her breathing movements were evident, but more so her heart was pounding at a rate of (I would guess) over 120 bpm. She had obviously come a long way, and hauled up to rest at great cost. We took some photos, made observations, and moved on.

I later found out that in the austral summer, male leopard seals are in the habit of hanging upside down in the water and making mating calls in order to summon a female. Was this a female who had been lured by a siren call? Or maybe a bold large male who had drifted too far from the subantarctic currents in search of a mate? Certainly there were no signs of wounds which might suggest an acrimonious fight over a female, or warding off unwanted attention. Maybe our seal was a female who had recently conceived and was looking far and wide for a suitable niche in which to birth later on in the year. We will never know what circumstances led to the arrival of the leopard seal on the beach, but as the omens looked bleak for her, we shared a moment and moved respectfully on.

Later in the evening, as the sun was setting, and we were making food before the spectacle of night swept the Cape, we again saw movement from the direction of the leopard seal. Making our way down to the shore, we could see the leopard seal was on the move and looking much better. Her movements were smooth, muscular and undulating as she edged her way down to the shore (a journey of a hundred and fifty yards or so). Every so often, she would pause and these punctured moments in time allowed us to photograph her in the light of the setting sun. Patagonian geese amassed at the waters edge, goading her on. The waves beckoned her back to the deep nourishing womb of the sea where she could be replenished by cool waters and plentiful food. The final 20 yards or so were a joy to watch; her glistening skin lapped by the tides, until she was buoyant and absorbed again into the sea. With powerful muscular movements our leopard seal slipped into the night, with only swirling foam to remind us of the drama we had just witnessed.  

North Utsire

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