12 January, 2000
Today as I walked along the shore, I was lucky to witness a Leopard Seal attack a penguin. I was watching a group of Adelies when I heard a loud splashing just offshore. When I looked, I could see the head of
the Leopard just above water with a penguin in its jaws. The seal thrashed back and
forth then dove under with the prey. A moment later it resurfaced, thrust its head above water, opened its gaping jaws and swallowed a big chunk of meat. A moment later, the seal rocketed out of the water onto a nearby iceberg. There was a small group of Adelies on the berg, which
promptly jumped back into the water. The seal followed not to return. I
took a few steps back from the beach in a amazement and with the thought that I didn't want to end with the same fate of the penguin. Leopard seals are known to also feed on Weddell seals which are considerably larger than humans. Now I understood the caution that the
Adelies always show before entering the water. Watching them, it is obvious that they are terrified of the sea, even though they swim as well as any fish. Before entering the water they wait until there is a big group ready to feed. Penguins are not leaders when it comes to going into the water. They will pack together in a funnel shaped mass of birds along the beach. This group tapers to the tip of the funnel, an
unlucky bird which stands on the waterline. As the penguins prepare to enter, they grunt to each other. The intensity of the grunting grows louder and louder until they all seem to be psyched up to get into the water. A powerful group dynamic occurs, and either the leader goes for it and dives in, or chickens out and runs to the back of the group, leaving another unlucky individual to the the leader. I suppose being the first in a pack of penguins is not the safest place to be if there is a Leopard seal prowling nearby. There is much less chance of being the victim if you are in the middle of the pack.
Sometimes the leader is parcticularly deceptive, or perhaps it senses
something at the last second. These birds will dive in then immediately
turn around and get out of the water while the rest of the pack continues into the sea. Though not parcticularly brave or noble in human
terms, I suppose these tricksters stand a good chance of surviving, and
thus pass on this behavior to their offspring. Between the Leopard seals and the Orcas patrolling the waters offshore, any behavior that puts a penguin at risk will not last long, as the penguin will be eaten. Not a good way to to live another day, let alone pass on their genes.
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