In 2003 British biologist Kirsty Brown, a member of the British Antarctic Survey, was fatally attacked by a leopard seal while snorkeling in Antarctica. While it was the first recorded human death caused by a leopard seal, evidence that this powerful Antarctic predator poses a significant danger to humans had been mounting for over 100 years.
28-year-old Brown was a member of the 22-strong British Antarctic Survey team spending the winter at the Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The station functions as the UK’s scientific foothold on the continent, used as a base of operations to study biology, geoscience and atmospheric science. Brown was an experienced diver and had previously taken part in at least two expeditions into the Arctic Circle, as well as Australia.
Brown was snorkeling with another member of the research team at a study site in one of the bays of Adelaide Island, the location of Rothera Station, when she was attacked by a leopard seal. She was around 25 metres from the shore when she was dragged underwater. A second team on shore immediately launched a rescue boat after hearing a scream and witnessing her disappear, and she was pulled from the water within 10 minutes.
Despite her colleagues beginning resuscitation attempts in the boat as they returned to the research station and the subsequent attention of the station’s doctor, Brown could not be revived. In total she suffered 45 separate lacerations and other injuries, and was held underwater for around six minutes at depths of up to 70 metres.
A coroner’s report recorded her death as an accidental drowning due to attack by a leopard seal. All safety requirements by the British Antarctic Survey team were found to have been met, including a precaution in place that team members should not enter the water when a leopard seal was in the area. The animal had not been seen at any point before it attacked Brown. However, it has been speculated that as she was snorkeling, Brown herself may have witnessed the seal approaching her.
As part of the inquiry into her death, Scottish zoologist Dr Ian Boyd stated three possible reasons behind the attack. Brown may have been mistaken for a fur seal or other common prey animal by the seal, or she may have frightened the animal by her presence and caused it to attack in self-defence. Third, and most frightening, is that the leopard seal deliberately stalked and killed her in a predatory attack. Boyd concluded his statement with the warning that while leopard seal attacks are extremely rare, increased human activity in Antarctica risks them becoming more common.
Reaching up to 3.5 metres (11.5ft) in length and weighing as much as 600 kilos (1,320lb), leopard seals are one of top predators of the Antarctic. They fill a similar ecological niche to that occupied by the polar bear in the Arctic, but are largely limited to hunting in the water while the white bear spends most of its life on land. Killer whales are their only known predators. They possess exceptionally large jaws for their size, lined with one-inch teeth. Juveniles feed mainly on krill, fish and cephalopods, with adults primarily hunting penguins and other seals.
While Brown was the first victim of a fatal attack, previous incidents that appear predatory in nature have been recorded. During Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, a member of the expedition named Thomas Orde-Lees was chased across sea ice by a leopard seal after he was separated from the rest of his party. He was saved when a companion, Frank Wild, heard his shouts for help and shot the animal dead.
In 1985, Scottish explorer Gareth Wood was attacked by a leopard seal and bitten twice on the leg. The animal attempted to drag him into the water, but he was saved when other members of the party stamped on the seal’s head with spiked crampons. Attacks on inflatable boats are increasingly common, to the point that researchers now equip their vessels with special guards to protect them from being punctured.