Let’s say you run an eco-tourist operation involved in providing adventure tours in Antarctica. One of your main lines of business might be using your specially equipped yacht ‘Australis’ to host legions of scientists studying the effect of climate change. But getting late in the season, business starts to dry up and expensively fitted out yachts that charter at over $4,000 (poa) per day for a minimum 21-day trip to Antarctica don’t pay for themselves if siting beside the dock in Ushuaia.
So, as an enterprising businessman you come up with a nice little earner. You contact an Australian TV show and suggest that they might like to provide a film crew to accompany a scientific mission to study leopard seals and the effect that climate change is having on them and their food chain. ‘Climate change’ is the clincher, of course, but to put icing on the cake you hype up the leopard seal as one of the top predators in Antarctica – second only to the killer whale — a vicious predator who is known to have killed at least one marine biologist — and you further spice the deal by offering the presenter an adrenalin-pumped dive with the aforesaid killer.
Who could resist? Clearly not Nine’s 60 Minutes and the resulting program went to air last night. How did it go? Well, here’s how Ocean Expeditions web-site described the adventure:
Reporter Allison Langdon, her 60 Minutes team and NOAA scientist Doug Krause were onboard ‘Australis’ for a thrilling late-season, scientific expedition to study leopard seals and climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Our go-to guy for this project was the big Scotsman, Kelvin Murray, both dive master and leopard seal specialist.
Having chased stories across the globe for 60 Minutes, Allison, producer Nick Greenaway, cameraman Andy Taylor and soundman Charles ‘Chick’ Davey, were surprised by the potency of Antarctica’s magic.
Our first stop was one of Antarctica most interesting places Cape Shirreff where brazen and adaptable Leopard seals have learned to stalk, capture and eat fur seals.
The team were here to capture the changes in Antarctica faced during climate change and the dynamic changes facing the habitat of Antarctica’s top apex predators – the leopard seal.
Along the way the team faced the challenges of a bumpy Drake Passage, sub-zero water temps and the build-up of snow and ice, yet ticked all its requirements (including capturing some breathtaking aerials courtesy of drone pilot Chick). Throughout the voyage, Australis’s saloon was alive with warmth and laughter.
Thanks to Doug and Kelvin, Allison and her crew felt the adrenalin rush of polar scuba diving with these apex predators.
So, a jolly good time was had by all. But how did it play on TV?
Well, naturally the climate change angle had to be dealt with first so that they could then get on with the important stuff. Why, you may ask, is it so important for us to study leopard seals? Well, even if you didn’t ask, Allison did and she received the following unarguable response from Dr Doug Krausse:
“Well, he is a large intelligent mammal. You, Allison, are a large intelligent mammal. So understanding how these populations interact in our changing planet will help human beings as well.”
As the ship arrived at Cape Shirreff, Allison made the perspicacious observation that it looked ‘pretty stark’. We were then told that this area used to be covered with ice but no longer. (Did she mean since last Winter, I wonder? It might be assumed that one of the northern-most points in Antarctica might be ice free at the end of an Antarctic summer.) We were also told that melting of the ice pack is disrupting the leopard seal and turning him into a climate refugee. That, because of this, he now congregates here at the Cape in large numbers and has devastated the local fur seal population. Why he would escape from his now ice-free original habitat to congregate in this new ice-free habitat is not quite explained. But perhaps buying real estate is just as much a subjective and emotional process for leopard seals as it is for humans. Clearly if, as hoped by Dr Doug, we humans are to learn new things from the leopard seal I guess this is not one of them.
Not to be picky but it occurred to me that the ratio of leopard seals to fur seals at Cape Shirreff might be based on a more prosaic consideration than ‘climate change’. The business of predation must be rather like the business of robbing banks. The canny predator goes where the prey is.
Be that as it may, some scientific activity was called for and Dr Doug duly obliged, or attempted to anyway. Invoking his best Steve Irwin impression, Dr Doug attempted to extract a whisker from a sleeping leopard seal with the aid of a pair of pliers. Analysis of the whisker would, apparently tell him what the seal had been eating for the last couple of years. Alas, despite his best ‘leopard crawl’ (get it?) two disobliging seals woke up at the last minute and our intrepid Antarctic scientist was forced to abandon the effort. Not to worry, though, I’m guessing, had Doug succeeded in his mission, you would have found that both seals had subsisted on a principal diet of penguin and fur seal pup.
But undaunted and in a relentless search for scientific knowledge, Allison and Doug then viewed some footage from a camera previously positioned on the back one, obviously more obliging, seal. What they discovered will amaze you. Apparently, when hunting, leopard seals are ‘strategic, adaptable and sometimes brazen’. The results of their hunt are not for the squeamish and sometimes they fight with other leopard seals who try to steal their catch!
At that point, science being pretty much exhausted it was off to the main adventure and dive with ‘the most notorious predator in the Antarctic’ – a description that struck me as rather unscientific and which was quickly refuted by the expeditions other seeker after knowledge, one Kelvin Murray. Kelvin assured us that the leopard seal was greatly maligned as a result of a single unfortunate incident of what might be termed ‘misidentification of prey’ — the devouring of a snorkelling marine biologist. Apparently this incident reverberated around the world, causing immense damage to the reputation of the otherwise blameless leopard seal. I must have missed it. Kelvin Murray’s defence of the seal was so spirited that Allison just couldn’t help calling him out for his ‘soft spot for leopard seals’. Oh shucks!
Next stop, where the diving was to take place, was Mikkelsen Harbour. Plenty of ice there and lots of fur seals as well but, curiously, only three leopard seals.
Finding a co-operative seal was a bit of a problem, but Allison finally got into the water and was, of course, rewarded with a magical experience. You can guess the rest. And here we must leave the intrepid adventurers to make their way back across the Drake Passage.
Allison is described in News.com’s coverage of the expedition as a ‘climate change advocate’. And why wouldn’t she be? One can never get enough climate change if it helps fund super-expensive jollies to remote parts of the world diving with great white sharks ‘without a cage’ or with notorious predators like the leopard seal.
Unlike the ABC, Nine is entitled to splash its cash on whatever frivolities it chooses. I’m not a shareholder and shouldn’t care. But when it peddles specious nonsense cloaked in the name of science and, in doing so, helps to further cement the global warming scare in the public mind, then I, yes, I do get pretty riled.