"We soon became acquainted with the sea-leopard,
which waits under the ice-foot for the little penguins;
he is a brute, but sinuous and graceful as the seal world goes."

Apsley Cherry-Garrard,
"The Worst Journey in the World"

Seals were the first Antarctic species to be commercially harvested. The trade in seal skins as early as the 1820s brought several species, including the Antarctic Fur Seal, close to extinction. Other species were also severely plundered, not for skins but for oil. Today, seals in the Antarctic are protected by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, which nonetheless allows for a small quota of specific species to be taken for science.

There are two main division of seals (Pinniped) -- the "eared" seals (Otariidae) and the "true" seals (Phocidae), which have no protruding ear. Members of both types are found in the far south. The "eared" seals have hairless hind flippers that can be brought under their body on land. They propel themselves in water with their long front flippers and on land they use these appendages to bound along, making them very agile. "True" seals have furred hind flippers that they use to swim, but on land they are dragged behind the body. They are clumsy and awkward out of the water, moving in "snakelike" undulations.

There are four truly Antarctic species of seals: the Weddell, the Ross, the Crabeater and the Leopard and two more that visit the continent, the Elephant and the Fur Seal. Of these, only the Fur Seal belongs to the Otariidae, or eared order. All Antarctic seals feed at sea using sonar (echolocation) and the enhanced sight of their large eyes. Each of the species feeds on a different diet, or in a different region, so there is little competition between them for resources.

Weddell Seals

Weddell Seals live on or under the "fast-ice" (sea-ice that is attached to the continent) year-round, and feed mainly on fish and squid. These seals are most likely to be seen close to the continent as they haul onto the ice at tide cracks, or beside breathing holes which they keep free of ice with their teeth. They are the most southerly mammal in the world and can dive to great depths -- 1000 to 1300 feet ( 300 to 400 meters) -- staying submerged for some 15 minutes. Their large eyes help them to see in the gloomy depths. With their smiling, whiskered face, Weddell Seals are the most "appealing" of all the Antarctic seals. Return

Crabeater Seals

The most abundant seal in the world, some 15 to 30 million Crabeater Seals are estimated to exist in the Antarctic. Despite their name they mostly eat krill, a diet which is supplemented by small fish and squid. Their teeth grow in rows, the upper and lower teeth interlocking like a strainer, which enables them to expel water while they retain their food. Despite their large number, Crabeater Seals are seldom seen on the coast, as they spend most of their time in the pack-ice off-shore. Return

Leopard Seals

The most ferocious seal in the Antarctic, Leopard Seals can often be seen cruising in the vicinity of penguin colonies, hunting for their main source of food. Their sharp teeth are well adapted for tearing apart penguin flesh, although they also hunt fish, squid and krill. Leopard Seals catch penguins by their feet and then beat them back and forth on the surface of the water to skin them. Males grow up to 10 feet (3m) long and can weigh up to 770 pounds (350 kg). It has been calculated that there are some 220,000 Leopard Seals around the Antarctic. Return

Southern Elephant Seal

Although the Southern Elephant Seal does not breed in the Antarctic, young males do come ashore at various places around the continent. This is the biggest of the Antarctic species: the males are much larger than the females and can measure 20 to 30 feet (6 to 7m) in length and weigh up to 4 tons, while the females weigh up to one ton and are usually no more than 11' 6" (3.5 m) in length. The most notable feature of the males is their inflatable proboscis, particularly prominent in the "harem bulls" (the main breeding males). These seals come ashore in various places to molt in the austral summer months of December, January and February, when they lie around for weeks at a time in muddy depressions called wallows. Elephant Seals feed mostly on fish and squid. Some 600,000 to 700,000 Southern Elephant Seals inhabit the Southern ocean. Return

Ross Seals

Ross Seals are very rarely seen, as they live deep within the consolidated pack-ice. This has made studying this species very difficult, but it is believed that Ross Seals feed mainly on squid and, to a lesser extent, fish and krill. They were named after the British polar explorer Sir James Ross, who first discovered them in 1840. Return

Antarctic Fur Seal

The only eared seal in the Antarctic, the Fur Seal occurs in the South Shetland, South Orkney and South Sandwich Islands. The males grow to 7 feet (2m) in length and weigh 220 pounds (100 kg), while the females are much smaller. Fur Seals can be quite aggressive and it is wise to give them a wide berth, especially in the mating season. This species was decimated in the nineteenth century by British and American sealers who pursued them for their skins -- within four years of their discovery in 1819 over 320,000 pelts were taken from the South Shetland Islands. Today the fur seals are making a rapid comeback and are regularly seen farther and farther south on the Antarctic Peninsula. Return

Photography ©Jonathan Chester, Extreme Images© 1995 Terraquest. All Rights Reserved.