Text and photos: Miguel Ángel Vicente de Vera
I have been chasing it for more than ten days. I have traversed glaciers, pebbled beaches, and desolate plains. I have even visited several islands without catching so much as a glimpse of it. I don’t know when or where, but I am absolutely sure that, at some point, I will look into the creature’s eyes.
Pursuing it makes me feel like a relentless hunter seeking its prey; it is an obsession, a mission that gives meaning to everything. My only weapon is a camera and the trophy is a photograph. My work as a photojournalist has brought me to Antarctica in pursuit of the elusive leopard seal, the jaguar of the White Continent. The animal can measure up to thirteen feet in length and weigh more than a thousand pounds; its keen eyesight and sense of smell make it a good hunter. It easily gulps down penguins —the Emperor penguin is a favorite— large fish, and seals, and it has even attacked humans.
Today we visit Dee, an uninhabited island in the South Shetland Archipelago. It is occupied by colonies of elephant seals and sea lions. Unlike these animals, the leopard seal is solitary, making it hard to track. The landscape looks rather apocalyptic, given that there are no trees and barely any signs of life. Icebergs float on the horizon, and enormous glaciers rising nearly 100 feet high surround me. There are cracks under the ice and large, potentially lethal pieces continually calve off. The air is frequently punctuated by loud bangs heralding another portion of glacier falling into the sea. My soul stills. I feel insignificant in the face of this magnificent display of nature, and at the same time, consequential for having reached one of the ends of the earth, for having achieved a dream.
After two hours on the road, we spot a black patch on a chunk of ice. It could be a leopard seal, or perhaps a Weddell seal or a sea lion. Hearts pounding and eyes widening, we approach. I walk stealthily, since the seals are territorial and aggressive. Yes. It’s a leopard seal resting near its pup. I bite my lip to keep from shouting for joy.
I have to be calm. I position myself in front of the seal at a safe distance and look into its eyes, but it does not move; it knows it is the apex predator. I run my eyes over its skin, the shape of its eyes, its mouth. It looks back; I sense that we understand each other, that it will allow me to continue. I begin to shoot. I try to capture the essence of the moment, to be as honest as possible. Then I turn to the pup, which enjoys posing for the lens. Its features do not yet reveal the predator it will soon become. I try to breathe silently while enjoying this moment intensely.
In Antarctica, the silence is absolute. The only sound is the wind dragging a handful of dead leaves or the distant cawing of a seagull. If an expedition member needs to leave the base, at least one other person must accompany them and they must radio back their location once an hour. “Antarctica shows no mercy,” we hear again and again. Many have died; they get lost and freeze to death. You’ll last ten to twelve minutes if you fall into the sea. Even so, I completed the rite of baptism: a dip into Antarctic waters. I jumped in clad in a bathing suit and rubber boots since the sea floor is carpeted with sharp stones. I felt an electric shock run through my entire body. The shock soon dulled the coldness and the water felt quite comfortable, but I was told to get out almost immediately, since I could collapse in a matter of minutes.
The Research Station
I spent 34 days at the Ecuadorian research station Pedro Vicente Maldonado with a group of scientists and military personnel. I could see a tranquil, leaden sea from my small room. The station has four rectangular metal modules: a lab, a boathouse, and another two, which house the kitchen, the bathrooms, the common space, and the sleeping quarters. We sleep in rooms of two, four, or six people. The facilities are simple but cozy. Heating is essential to our survival. Everything runs on diesel generators. Our drinking water comes directly from a glacier; it is the purest and freshest I have ever tasted.
The sun shines from six in the morning to ten at night, but the light is filtered through a strange mist. Today the thermometer reads just under -18 degrees Celsius, one of the coldest days of the Antarctic summer, which lasts from November to March. In winter, temperatures reach -40°C and the seas freeze. The lowest temperature on earth (-85°C) has been recorded in the interior of the White Continent. The scientists tell me that the day’s activities are canceled owing to a 43-mph wind. I step outside for a few minutes. We always need to wear three layers of clothing, the last one weatherproof, along with polarized glasses, gloves, caps, and boots. When I open the two safety doors, an infinity of snow particles dance around me, the wind whistles loudly, and the Ecuadorian flag flaps at the top of the flagpole. I can’t see more than 15 feet in front of me. I go back inside.
The Elephant Seal
After two days of isolation, my Antarctic safari continues in search of an elephant seal, an enormous creature that can weigh nearly 9,000 pounds. It barely manages to move this mountain of fat with its small flippers, dragging itself along the ground like a giant worm. But once in the ocean, it is a spritely swimmer that can remain submerged up to two hours and dive to depths of nearly 5,000 feet. With its retractile proboscis and diminutive eyes, it is not particularly photogenic. This male here in front of me lets me place the camera a few yards from its face. I hear its low wheezing and I see myself reflected in the animal’s eyes.
The nearly seventy research stations on the continent of Antarctica are not open to everyone, since you need to pass several physical and psychological tests to join an expedition. The minimum stay is one month, there is virtually no communication with the outside, and weather conditions can confine members to the station. The hours pass slowly during those times, so it is very important to keep the mind occupied. There is no access to social media, only a shared email for sending text messages.
The Kingdom of Penguins
Penguins can be found across the entire Antarctic continent. Two species —the long-tailed gentoo and the chinstrap— live in the area I visited. While watching a penguin waddle by is a wonderful experience, entering a penguin colony is quite different. Around 10,000 penguins live on Barrientos Island, some 1.5 miles from the Ecuadorian base. The first thing you notice is the stench of tons of excrement; the smell is so strong that it reaches nearby islands.
Living far from our modern world, the penguins exist in harmony. Some cackle on the shore as if at a social gathering while others swim placidly in the sea or take a nap. Mothers form protective circles around their chicks, improvising day nurseries. The most experienced penguins stand guard on higher ground, watching for one of their enemies: the skua, a carnivorous bird similar to a seagull. We watched one suddenly attack a distracted chick. The bird glided toward the chick and began to peck it on the head. When all seemed lost, a group of adults lined up in military formation and advanced triumphantly toward the bird.
Signs of the cruel struggle for survival are omnipresent in this wildlife sanctuary: skeletons of sea lions, decomposing penguins, dead birds. Nonetheless, a landscape of death can occasionally have a savage beauty of its own. This holds true for whale cemeteries, remote beaches where these enormous mammals come to die in peace. There is one on Greenwich Island. Three nearly intact skeletons rest on the black sand, along with the remains of other individuals.
The site exudes peace and dignity. The island’s proximity to the coast and the well-preserved remains indicate that the whales arrived under their own power. They resemble shipwrecks. There is an enormous skeleton that may have once been a blue whale, the largest animal to have ever existed. It may have been here 30, 40, or 50 years; no one knows.
Our stay in Antarctica draws to a close. We depart for Chile from the airport on King George Island. A Brazilian expedition awaits in the minuscule boarding lounge. A giant Hercules military plane circles and makes an unsuccessful first attempt to land. The Brazilians are visibly tense, since they are several days late. The airplane tries again, but cannot land. They have permission for only two attempts, so the plane returns to Chile.
Our plane arrives two hours later. There is a feeling of uncertainly, since it is still snowing hard, but this time the plane lands and we board immediately. The plane performs a powerful take-off and soon we see nothing beyond an immense white mass. “What is this life?” asks Calderón de la Barca in his famous work. “An illusion,” he answers, “A shadow, a fiction…this life is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.”
How to Get There
Copa Airlines offers 68 flights to Santiago de Chile and 42 flights to Buenos Aires (Argentina) from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. Cruises regularly sail south from both capitals, stopping at Ushuaia, Paradise Bay, and the Schollaert Canal. In Chile, most cruises depart from Punta Arenas and follow similar routes. For further information, visit www.copaair.com