Get to know Antarctica's apex predator

Order: Carnivora

Family: Phocidae

GenusHydrurga 

Species: H. leptonyx

Range: Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters

Population: Estimated between 220,000 and 440,000

How to spot them: Distinctive black-spotted gray coat with a lighter-colored belly. Up to 12 feet long and 1,000 pounds. Earless, elongated heads with long, sharp teeth

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern—at relatively low risk of extinction

Male leopard seals make distinctive calls to advertise their availability to mates as well as assert their territory. Video by Eric Wehrmeister aboard the National Geographic Explorer in South Orkney, Antarctica.

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Fierce and feline-looking, leopard seals are named for their distinctive black-spotted coat and strong, toothy jaws that resemble those of the big cat. And like their namesake, these seals are fast and ferocious hunters—Antarctica’s apex predator along with killer whales. Although they’re second in size to the elephant seal, leopard seals’ streamlined bodies help them rocket through the water, chasing prey at speeds of up to 25 miles an hour.

Look for leopard seals on one of our thrilling Antarctica itineraries >

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has taken up the mission of helping to dismantle their savage reputation. While diving on assignment in Antarctica in 2006, he had an incredible encounter with a large female leopard seal. Over the course of four days, the inquisitive seal worked to establish a relationship with Nicklen, bringing him gifts of penguins in various states of demise and inspecting his scuba gear and camera.

Studying these creatures—even nailing down an exact population size—is difficult to do and there’s a lot science doesn’t yet know. But after his up-close experience, Nicklen, who has photographed polar bears and walrus, spirit bears and wolves, said that “leopard seals are the most incredible animals (he’s) ever had the pleasure of photographing.” 

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