Antarctica’s Man-Killing Seals

By Christopher M. Stephens on Sunday, September 29, 2013
“It’s merely the playful mutterings of the shock victim. A seal would never prey on a human, unless, of course, it had acquired a taste for mammal blood.” —Tobias, Arrested Development

In A Nutshell

Polar bears are powerful top predators that fearlessly patrol the Arctic regions of the planet. At the other pole, Antarctica is haunted by an equivalent predator serving the same ecological role. The leopard seal measures nearly 4 meters (13 ft) in length, and can weigh over 600 kilograms (1,300 lb). While penguins and other seals are their normal prey, humans have been targeted in truly terrifying seal attacks, with at least one documented fatality. Attacks on humans seem to involve little hesitation, and their rarity is probably attributable only to the infrequent nature of human contact.

The Whole Bushel

Leopard seals are a nightmare version of a seal with their truly incredible size, weight, and power, coupled with a top swimming speed of around 40 kph (25 mph). They are truly ferocious hunters and will eat other seals, penguins, and also hunt krill when large prey items are not available. Their canine teeth grow nearly 3 centimeters (1.2 in) in length and are used to rip their larger victims apart with a shaking motion.

The threat of monster seal attacks first became apparent on Earnest Shackleton’s attempted trans-Antarctic expedition between 1914 and 1917. Thomas Ordes-Lee was chased on the ice by a massive “sea leopard” measuring nearly 4 meters (13 ft) in length. His survival only became possible when a team member shot the charging sea beast. In 1985, Scottish explorer Gareth Wood was nearly dragged into the water by a leopard seal that seized his leg.

By repeatedly kicking the animal, his companions narrowly secured Gareth Wood’s release. In 2003, British scientist Kirsty Brown was fatally attacked by a leopard seal while snorkeling. She was dragged underwater, and autopsies showed multiple head wounds. It seems humans stand little chance when attacked in the water, and the only reason predatory attacks are not more prevalent may simply be the rarity of human interactions with leopard seals.

Show Me The Proof

Pathological findings of a fatal leopard seal attack
Interactions between humans and leopard seals
Leopard Seal Kills Scientist in Antarctica