We're not sure if it's the 1,200-pound body or the grizzly bear-sized head (or maybe that the two together look like the ocean-dwelling fur-baby of Voldemort monkey and an ancient reptile), but over the years, the leopard seal has racked up a rather menacing reputation. And yet, wildlife photographers continue to show us that the powerful animals also have a soft side. 
Amos Nachoum has dipped below the waves with some of the ocean's top predators, but swimming with leopard seals remains one of his most cherished experiences. "One needs to have caution when joining this solitary and territorial animal," he says. "And it should never be done alone. But I dedicate time every year to be with this iconic wildlife, and on my last Antarctic expedition, I had a remarkable, 20-minute dive and was entertained by this curious seal."

Nachoum hopes that his footage may help viewers to appreciate the giant pinnipeds – a sentiment shared by renowned photographer Paul Nicklen, whose opinion of leopard seals was shaped during a 2006 encounter that remains one of our favourites to this day. "These animals eat 'Happy Feet,'" Nicklen joked during a National Geographic Live talk. "We're a very emotional species. We think penguins are cute, we think leopard seals are ugly, and therefore, we think leopard seals must be bad." 

Yet in the time that Nicklen spent with these animals in the frigid waters of Antarctica, he witnessed displays that were balletic, not bloody. One large female even attempted to feed him ... repeatedly:
Despite what Pixar might tell us, penguins aren't the only animals that leopard seals eat. In fact, krill makes up some 45 percent of their diet during winter. Along with those bone-snapping front teeth, leopard seals also possess specialised, grooved molars that allow them to strain small crustaceans from the water (much like a whale's baleen).

Feeding on krill, colander-style, saves energy – and when you spend your days in sub-zero temperatures, that's an especially hot commodity. Even for these large predators, killing an adult penguin takes a lot of work. A successful hunt often involves a chase, and once avian prey is caught, there's still much to be done. To prepare a penguin for a one-way trip down the hatch, the seals first have to snap its neck by swinging the bird in a large, overhead arc. Next, the feathered hors d'oeuvre is smashed on the surface of the water until it's torn open. Krill makes for an easy meal by comparison.

The seals' extreme habitat also makes life hard for the humans who study these animals – and for all our research, there is a lot we don't know about them. Leopard seals are extremely vocal for such solitary swimmers, but we don't know what their vocalisations mean. The animals take four years to reach sexual maturity, but mating has never been observed, and little is known about their breeding grounds.

Perhaps most surprisingly, we have no clear idea of how many leopard seals there are in the wild. Over the years, surveys have brought us estimates ranging from 400,000 to (more recently) just 35,000. A declining population trend has not been confirmed, but we also don't know enough about the future impact of human activities on seal numbers. As is the case with many top predators, it's very possible that the species will require improved protections – and that is the message Nachoum hopes to drive home with his footage. 

"My videos are aimed at creating better awareness of leopard seals," says Nachoum. "W
hen we understand wild [animals], we come to respect and love them. Conservation and education is always on my mind."

Top header image: Gilad Rom