When a Monkey Meets a Seal - Diving in Antarctica
Words by: Matt McArthur
Photo by: Jeni Stembridge
I’m standing beside a hole, and inside the hole it’s cold and dark and there’s no air. A lifelong fascination with Antarctica and a love of working underwater have collided and I’m standing on the shores of Ross Island, about as far south as you can go and still work as a marine biologist.
I take a deep breath and step in the dark, cold, airless hole and descend through three meters of sea-ice and twelve meters of sea to begin my work on the seafloor. And my task engrosses me. I know what I’m doing. I’m calm, and so long as I don’t think too much about where I am and what I’m doing, I stay calm.
And then I feel a current go past and it gives me a bit of a knock. Normally when I feel that I think “Shark!” but I’m too far south for sharks. I’m too far south for orcas. It’s cool, nothing’s going to eat me - I’m probably the biggest thing nearby.
Then I look up, and there’s a Weddell seal. I’m not the biggest thing nearby, the Weddell seal is the biggest thing nearby. Four hundred kilograms of seal has just swum over the top of me. Underwater they look like a hot water cylinder, almost a perfect cylinder of blubbery meat, and they do this neat trick where they look at you over their back with big dark eyes to take advantage of what light is available. It watches me as I watch it. And then it touches the seafloor.
You can’t see a thing except underneath these holes where the bright sunlight of the Antarctic summer is streaming through the clear water.
We’ve brought our warmth and our oxygen to this spot by very different paths, both in terms of what we did that morning to prepare for this dive that brought us together and in terms of the huge arc of evolutionary history that separates us all the way back to the last time our ancestors met. But the seal and I are watching each other and I don’t think the seal is watching where it’s going and it hits the seafloor, and the seafloor is covered in anchor ice.
Now we normally think of ice as floating, but anchor ice doesn’t because it’s anchored. Ice just forms where it’s cold enough to form and anchor ice forms on the rocks of the seafloor. And it is buoyant – it wants to float but it can’t until it reaches a size that it’s able to loft the rock that it’s attached to, so sometimes you’ll get a rock drifting past in the current, or sometimes it’ll peel up like an old carpet. In this case it’s been dislodged by the seal that wasn’t watching where it was going. It was watching the monkey.
Anchor ice forms incredibly beautiful interlocking plates and facets. They’re very delicate, so as the seal hits it this anchor ice is shattered, and under its own buoyancy it begins to rise. And it’s rising in a shaft of light.
This incredible kaleidoscope is on the rise. It’s the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen and I don’t know if anyone else who can communicate with language has ever seen it.
The water that the seal and I are diving in is almost optically pure - it’s probably the clearest water on Earth and you could see for kilometres if there was light to see by, but there’s not. The sea ice and the snow on top of it block the light and other than the hole that I came in through and the hole that I’m going to leave by, it’s like someone’s dropped a dark curtain through the water. Black velvet.
You can’t see a thing except underneath these holes where the bright sunlight of the Antarctic summer is streaming through the clear water. These ice crystals are now rising into that shaft of light, and this beautiful coruscating chandelier starts to loft and each facet of the ice is catching that light and splitting it and rotating as it rises.
This incredible kaleidoscope is on the rise. It’s the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen and I don’t know if anyone else who can communicate with language has ever seen it. And while, as a scientist, you train very hard not to anthropomorphise (you’re not supposed to put human values onto the organisms that you observe), it’s hard not to feel that the seal might have gone out of its way to show me this... That it wasn’t just an accident of navigation - that it thought to itself “Hey, monkey, watch this.”
I try to be objective. I try not to anthropomorphize my experience but it’s almost impossible not to feel incredibly privileged to have shared this moment, alone under the sea ice but for this Weddell seal, and to feel grateful to that seal for what it showed me.