Antarctica’s Man-Killing Seals

“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

  • It’s no surprise that the leopard seal will attack humans. It would be surprising if they did not. I live on the coast and see elephant seals, harbor seals, harp seals, and sea lions daily. These are large animals with sharp teeth and they are territorial, but not needlessly aggressive. Anyone who approaches any seal is risking attack from an animal defending his territory or pup. Thinking seals are cute and cuddly is a sure way to get injured or killed. Treat all wild animals with respect and caution.

    • Exiled Phoenix

      I wonder what seals taste like. I bet they’d be best over an open fire so most of the blubber falls and the meat roasts.

      • I wonder what seals taste like

        Chicken, of course.

        • Exiled Phoenix

          Interesting!

        • Barry Lease

          While on the USS Glacier in 60 or 61 the scientist had the galley cook up some for an experiment too see what the sailors thought of it. It tasted fishy and I can do without eating it again UNLESS I AM VERY, VERY HUNGRY.

          • Fishy. Pretty much what you’d expect. It’s interesting that you got to try it.

          • Barry Lease

            Did a lot of strange and adventurous things in the 4 trips to Antarctica from 59 to 73 on the USS Glacier the Navy’s largest icebreaker of the day.

          • I would absolutely love hearing those stories.

      • Adam Jazzkamp

        it would taste like salty disappointment.

        • Exiled Phoenix

          Have you tried it? That sucks, would’ve thought it would taste good once the blubber burned off.

    • Micah Florence

      Also take into account that leopard seals are top predators and regularly hunt warm blooded prey. So this makes it even more apparent and realistic.

  • Hillyard

    When thinking of harmless animals, seal are usually near the top of the list. Evidently that’s a false assumption. Perhaps they’re getting a little pay-back for their litle cousins in the great white north.

    • It’s tempting, I know, to think of something so adorable as harmless, but get a look at their teeth and that misperception will be instantly dispelled. Or see a couple of the bulls fighting for supremacy, and the opportunity to mate, and all thoughts of docility wil immediately vanish.
      All wild animals are the same, really, despite what Disney would have you have you believe.

    • Valkyrie

      I was just thinking that myself

    • Christopher Stephens

      yeah its so odd to realize that polar bears and leopard seals are somewhat closely related – seals are very much the dogs of the water – related to bears and canines…they are caniformes themselves.

  • Errkism

    Leopard Seals are badass. To my knowledge they don’t have many predators either. The orca whale for sure, and maybe polar bears? If anyone can think of more let me know.

    • Orcas are the only predators of leopard seals.
      Orcas are pretty badass creatures themselves. I’ve seen an Orca attack a seal just a hundred yards or so offshore (in almost the exact location I witnessed a great white attack and kill a seal). The Orca is an incredibly intelligent animal, hunting in organized, obviously planned packs.
      Something I find fascinating is just how badass the seal is, both eared and earless. Every year several seals with large shark bites out of their sides are found on the beaches here. Most of those injured seals are alive, and resting until they regain the strength to renter the water. Last year, on my walk, I came across an injured sea lion (I knew it was a sea lion because of the ears) lying about 20 feet up from the shoreline. There was an enormous bite out of it’s right side. The animal was deathly still. I couldn’t see any evidence of breathing, so I approached it to find if it was living (injured marine mammals can be reported to the Monterey Bay Marine Mammal Conservancy), and did I need to call for aid for it, or leave it for scavengers. As I got next to it, it suddenly reared up and lunged at me!
      Well, it was my own fault. I know better!
      Happily, because of the big bite, which was fresh, it was neither as fast or as accurate as it normally would have been and I escaped injury. But the moral of the story is, even if you think the animal is dead, don’t approach.

      • Errkism

        Where do you live if you don’t mind me asking? Because orca’s to me are literally the coolest thing in the sea. And you said you got to see one attacking, so you have to live somewhere awesome.

        • I live on the central coast of California, within the Monterey Bay Marine Mammal Conservancy. It’s a little town, nor more than a villag really, named Cambria-Pines-by-the-Sea. We have tide pools, year-round populations of various species of seal and sea lions, as well as Northern elephant seals. We’re on the migratory route of humpback whales, blue whales, grey’s, minkes, orcas. There are both porpoise and dolphin, and sea otters too.
          Naturally, with all those tasty treats we have sharks, great whites and basking sharks are the most common (although sightings are not common).
          We also have a wonderful variety of terrestrial mammals and birds.
          I really love living here.
          …and yeah, orcas are amazing!