The leopard seal is Antarctica's big, charismatic carnivore.
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Photo by Papa Lima Whiskey, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The leopard seal is Antarctica's big, charismatic carnivore.

Book in Brief: The Antarctic Dive Guide

I’m not going diving in the Antarctic anytime soon. I’ve averse to cold, I haven’t reupped by PADI certification since I was 16, and, frankly, I don’t have the cash to get there. But, all the same, I’m glad Princeton University Press sent me a copy of Lisa Eareckson Kelley’s The Antarctic Dive Guide.

The bulk of the book, as would be expected of a dive guide, is a listing of dive spots around Antarctica. Each includes a map, coordinates, a summary of what to expect from each site, and more. The overall impression is of a place meant for the hardest of the hardcore. Even some of the descriptions might be enough to make the reader want to pee their wetsuit. The description of Elephant Island warns that “Brash Ice can be a factor to be contended with, as the nearby glacier is very active”, and the Aitcho Islands profile advises “All dive sites have a very strong tidal current, which can sweep you out from land, away from your boat, and towards the center of the English Strait by as much as 1km.” Eep.

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But all of these frigid descriptions come with beautiful color photographs of sea cucumbers, seals, sea stars, salps, and an array of other marine organisms whose names don’t start with “s”. Far from being a saltwater tomb, the Southern Ocean is full of gloriously weird and colorful life. While I obviously can’t speak from experience, the guide does an admirable job of telling readers what sort of creatures to expect at each site and how to get the best photographs of them. The photos are enough to tempt a desert rat like myself to consider dipping a toe in the icy Antarctic waters.

Above all, though, one short section of the book caught my attention. Leopard seals are the Antarctic’s big, charismatic carnivores, and they have traditionally been cast as villains. Their bad reputation seemed to be earned when, in 2003, a leopard seal drowned marine biologist Kirsty Brown. Yet this was the only such death on record, and many divers have reported leopard seals as inquisitive more than aggressive.

To cut through these conflicting ideas, an array of contributors offer their perspectives on the seals and how to avoid injury at their jaws. A submerged diver usually doesn’t look like prey, for example, but a seal may mistake a diver walking to the edge of the ice for an overlarge penguin, the pinniped’s favored food. Even though relatively little is known about the beasts and their habits, the guide is clear that leopard seals are wild animals and even “friendly” seals that bring divers gifts of dead penguins should not be considered cuddly undersea buddies.

The sea can inspire and entrance. That doesn’t mean we can forget that it is wild. We may visit, but, despite being descendants of fishapods that swam through the water over 375 million years ago, the sea is not a place we’re adapted to in the least. The Antarctic Dive guide does an admirable job at balancing these perspectives, conveying the joys and the risks involved at entering such a beautiful, alien part of the world.