Dr. Marina Aquarius Fishwater paces around her bright yellow North Face expedition tent, planning her day. This newly minted marine biologist loves the stripped-down austerity of life at the 66th parallel south. Icebergs, Glaciers. Ice floes. Snow. Marina’s tent home is equally minimalist: sleeping bag, duffel bag and sheepskins (the academic kind — PhD) pinioned to the stretched nylon tent wall.
Welcome to life in Antarctica, where the leopard seals dive and thrive.
To Marina, this is heaven, for Marina is a biologist whose specialty is the Antarctic predatory marine mammal, the leopard seal. She’s spending a few months doing her postdoctoral work near Palmer Station, the scientific outpost in the Antarctica “banana belt” where temperatures in the summer hit the balmy high of 30 degrees F.
Marina remembers how people thought she was crazy when she announced her doctoral thesis topic: The hunting and social behavior of leopard seals, a.k.a. Hydrurga leptonyx, at Seal Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. But as a child, she had fallen in love with these pointy-headed, primo predators of the South — Southern Hemisphere, that is — when she saw a hungry one devour a penguin in the movie “March of the Penguins.”
Marina is on the side of the predators, and she likes it there.
She is comfortable in her tent, and it’s the first hour of the 20 hours of daylight in the Antarctic December summer day. She was meeting her colleague, Tim “Iceman” Commeth, for a day of tracking leopard seals on the water. Tim was from the Geological Survey leopard seal research program and was an Antarctic old-timer, known for his ice-floe shenanigans. She had heard he’d once run around outside in sub-zero weather — on a dare — clad only in his long underwear. He had lived but, rumor has it, some parts of him didn’t. Like his common sense, some said.
For today’s trip, Tim would be the navigator, Marina the tracker, keeping tabs on a few lucky elephant seals that had tracking devices attached to their wet little bodies.
Not one of them is balancing a beach ball. What bums.
OK, OK. Inventory time. Marina checks her gear bag. Food (freeze-dried, dry, and yucky). Water (more yucky). Logbook. Binoculars. Tracking equipment Life jacket. Oh, shoot. Marina grabs the 50 SPF sunscreen. Can’t forget that. Twenty hours of sunlight can take a toll on a girl’s complexion. OK. She has on three layers of clothes, a fur-lined parka and boots. Knit hat. Three layers of gloves and mittens.
All layered up, she is ready to go.
She pokes her head outside the tent flap and a blast of cold wind smacks her. Antarctica. She loves it. She slip-slides her way the half-mile to the Palmer Station marina where Tim is waiting next to the dock.
“Marina,” Tim yells. “Marina, your fate is sealed.” He cackles like a banshee and pulls on the line, making the little Zodiac inflatable boat rock and roll like a black rubber cork.
That subzero degree run really did do him in, Marina thinks. The guy’s one of the end-of-the-line nut cases you see everywhere in this frozen outpost of borderline personalities.
“Morning, Tim,” Marina says, warily. Gosh, a whole day with this guy. Lord help me. But it’s for the leopard seals, and my post-doc research, she reminds herself.
They both hop onto the boat, Tim starts the motor, and it’s off the leopard seal feeding grounds and feeding frenzy. They motor a little bit away from the cove, on their way to the favorite dives of the leopard seals.
The purpose of this expedition is to see how, when and what the leopard seals pounce on and munch into oblivion. Marina’s job is to watch and note down in the logbook how leopard seals hunt and record how they behave while hunting in the watery killing fields.
Marina holds on to her high-frequency radio receiver for dear life, because Tim is having fun driving Zodiac in figure eights.
“Cool it, Tim,” Marina barks. Yes, she does bark when she’s upset. Tim gives her a sidelong glance, and the gleam in his eyes makes him look totally demented. He cackles again.
Marina gives up on taming Tim and turns to her beeping receiver.
Beep. Beep. Beep. One of the study subjects, leopard seal ID’d as frequency “6-066,” is swimming in the vicinity. It’s hungry. It’s on the hunt.
Marina sees 6-066 coming up on a penguin that’s not paying attention to life. 6-066 pounces, diving toward dinner. No more penguin.
Definitely not a penguin.
For each dive of death, Marina fills in a grid of information in her logbook: dive time; successful dive (dinner? no dinner? snack?); type; amount; size of food; handling time of food. And she times this with a stopwatch. Details, detail. Marina knows these details, gory or otherwise, help scientists understand how these predators dine in the briny deep of Antarctica, and how much of a pain it is for leopard seals to eat and for their prey to avoid being eaten.
It’s a long day. Marina tracks the other members of the study colony: 6-069, 6-070 and 6-777. These three other leopard seals keep busy diving, and are looking fat and happy.
Marina glances at her stopwatch. Gosh, five hours have gone by. Time flies when you’re tracking killer marine animals. Tim has been quiet for the past hour, rocking back and forth behind the outboard motor, humming Elton John songs.
Marina vows not to overstay her welcome in Antarctica.
Craaaaazy is what happens to those who don’t know when it’s time leave. She may end up like Tim. Marina shudders at the thought.
Tim revs up the motor, and they head back to shore, easing back into the dock at Palmer Station. The station has computers and meals and hot showers and social life and a full complement of weirdo scientists.
Weirdos. Marina prefers living in her tent for a reason. She doesn’t like too much togetherness.
She says her farewells to Tim and trudges off to spending the evening crunching the numbers and data from that day’s excursion.
Hey, Marina reminds herself, it beats collecting and organizing plant and animals samples for someone else’s cockamamie marine biological experiment.