Ryan Damocles, nature's version of a British Paparazzo, my trusty 200mm lens camera, and I began our hunt, or simperingly called 'wildlife observation', for the elusive Leopard Seal on a frosty Antarctic morning. Furry little elephant seals slumbered by the sheer ice cliffs yonder like gigantic brown marshmallows indulgently melting into the ambrosial whiteness. I named the fattest one, "Elon Muskmallow," because seriously, who could resist?
Finally, streaking through the clear, blue waters like an organic torpedo blessed with all the graces of water ballet, there she was – the object of our pursuit, the subtly charismatic "Serendipity." Dwarfing the sleek aerodynamics of a submarine, she glided effortlessly under her crystalline stage – a resplendent figure in the underwater panorama evoking silent gasps of wonder from the mute abyss.
As Serendipity ventured closer to the ice shore for air, we saw her etch a magnificent silhouette against the colossal icebergs, graced with an assortment of ice sculptures that Pablo Picasso might have crafted during a particularly wild LSD trip. We watched as she'd coyly hide herself amidst the waves, her motley grey skin effortlessly blending with the shifting palette of the ocean, and her predatory eyes gleaming with the same intelligent mischief as ol' Gage when a wild idea comes visiting.
Now our interactions were no less amusing. During the first encounter, she greeted me and Ryan Damocles with nothing more than a disdainful flit of her massive, torpedo-like tail – apparently, we hadn't quite cracked the social echelon of the Antarctic seabed. But fret not! I've been snubbed by the best, not to forget that grumpy camel in Morocco!
As we progressed thence, our chilly vigil became the arena for the balletic seals to play, quite unmodestly, 'highlight reel.' Through my Bushnell Natureview Binocs, affectionately dubbed "Cassandra Plaza," their intricate water play and dramatic hunts unfolded for me. It was here in this icy wonderland that I observed Serendipity's striking knack for seal-ious banter.
Interactions with "Cheeky Krillby," the unsuspecting Crabeater seal pup, were as bemusing as they come. They resembled two poised dancers choreographing elaborate ruses of mock-chase and cloyingly playful overtures. Serendipity would slide powerfully through the depths, overtly mimicking Krillby's movements. Then, suddenly, with the deceptive agility of a prima ballerina mutated with an Olympic diver, she'd leap to the surface, scattering the smaller elephant seals in a frenzied splash, hitting what must be hilariously funny in the seal comedy world.
While I'd muse about their obviously 'Yo Mama' seal jokes, which are too advanced for my (admittedly impressive) understanding, I found an unexpected participant in their icy antics, a curiously sociable penguin who I took the liberty to call "Winston Pebblebottom," always at the receiving end of Serendipity's cunning, yet affectionate, seal pranks.
Monitoring Serendipity during a routine food hunt was a surreal experience. With her powerful jaw she'd crack open hard-shelled molluscs with locomotive force, or send a twilight cascade of bioluminescent squids in disarray. It was like observing an engrossed gourmet indulging in a feast of hand-picked delicacies, or rather paw-picked in her case.
Over days, I realised that Serendipity was more than just a creature of whims and quirks. She was as much curious as us at her end of the frozen tundra. One day, she approached Cassandra Plaza, stared point-blank into the lens, flicked her tail and sauntered away. Was that sass I caught? Well, touché Serendipity, touché!
As a nature writer, I’ve marvelled at the tonal yowls of lovelorn coyotes and swum with zen-master turtles. But the eccentric spectacle of interacting with leopard seals – the high-speed chases, the awkward first introductions, the high society manners of the mezzo-mundo, the four-star gourmet meals, and the seal comedy – manifest as a jumble of words and frostbite-tales that leave me, and ol' Ryan Damocles, eternally enamored. And Serendipity, oh regally unassuming Serendipity, is now, more of a family than a blog subject.
With the last laugh and nose boop, Serendipity says her goodbyes. The hunt was over, and I left the frozen heaven with memories of a seal family snuggled in a corner of my heart. But as all good hunts do, this one left me yearning for more. Since then, I have watched the moon for signs and listened for the calls that might signal the start of another journey, another hunt, another story. Because as the great Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over 'til it's over." Well, this is Gage Neal signing off until the next 'over' begins!