Antarctic seals

Southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) and Ross seal (Ommatophoca rossii), four species to illustrate the diversity in this small group (there are only 18 species of earless seal).

All the way in the back lies a bull Southern elephant seal. Not only the largest of the pinnipeds, with its 6 metres and 4 tons (max 6.85 m and 5 tonnes) a Southern elephant seal can call himself the biggest of the carnivorans as well. Females weigh in at a much more modest 770 kilos and rarely reach 3 metres in length. With her being four to five times smaller than the male this species also displays the greatest sexual dimorphism of any mammal. On top of that they are also the deepest and longest diving air-breather after the cetaceans: the record sits at 2388 metres deep and over 2 hours long!

One to the front and a female Leopard seal flashes a toothy grin. In their Antarctic homes only Killer whales could ever pose a threat, and even those huge dolphins would think twice before attacking such a formidable predator. They are the second largest species of Antarctic seal and hunt more warm-blooded prey than any other pinniped. However, despite fearsome looks, name and reputation, the largest part of the Leopard seal’s diet actually consists of krill. Much like baleen whales they sieve the little crustaceans from a mouthful of water using their specially lobed teeth. Crabeater, Weddell and Ross seals also have such teeth and use them to similar effect.

The Weddell seal that’s relaxing on her side much prefers fish over krill though, and will dive to 600 metres to catch it, staying submerged for longer than an hour. More impressive than their diving abilities is their vocabulary: Weddells are the noisiest of seals and with the most diverse calls. Some individuals use up to 30 or 40 different calls to communicate. Not to mention those calls sound utterly otherwordly. Their space-effect-like whistles, thrills, whoops and siren calls hardly sound like they come from a living being.

Ross seals don’t have much of a record on their name, except being the most elusive and probably the rarest of the Antarctic seals. Sadly not something to be proud of. They spend most of their lives far out onto (and under) the pack ice, only venturing into the open ocean in winter to hunt. They are the only southern seal to never leave Antarctic waters, usually hugging the shore of the pack ice closely. I think they are one of the most beautiful of all pinnipeds, with their delicate and elaborate striping patterns.