Leopard seal teaches photographer how to catch penguins

Brian Lam showed me this amazing short video yesterday. It chronicles an encounter that National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen had with a giant leopard seal in Antarctica who, over the course of four days, fed penguins to his camera and tried to teach him how to catch prey.


  1. I can’t see the video on this computer but I’d naively think that this is an example of an animal getting a teaching instinct or behavior for its young that is misfiring. This happens sometimes with cats trying to teach their owners to hunt (that’s one of the reasons it is believed they give half-dead animals to their owners. That’s how they teach their own young to start hunting).

      1. This is misfiring in that there’s an evolved instinct which serves a specific genetic purpose and it isn’t serving that purpose. As for humans, yes in that same sense that behavior is frequently misfiring although since humans have separately domesticated animals and have a direct interest in preserving other species the argument can be made that it has good results. Where an instinct comes from is completely independent of the pragmatic or moral good of acting on that instinct.

    1. I’m glad you admit that your guess was naive. Many mammals, including leopard seals, are not mindless machines whose behavior operate merely on coded instinct, but actually have very impressive cognitive abilities. This is an example of that phenomenon. This was actually a demonstration of the seal’s ability to empathize, revealing possession of theory of mind.

      1. Having advanced cognitive capabilities isn’t at all contradictory with having instinctive behavior. Humans have a lot of instincts. We also have advanced cognitive capabilities. False dichotomies are really unhelpful.

    2. I am not a student of biology, but I make it a point to have the best understanding of the sciences that I can have, so anybody who can answer this, feel free to. Does the parental instinct to teach young how to hunt also apply to male cats the way it does female cats? The reason I ask is that I am unaware of the male cat’s role in rearing young, but I do know that my three-year-old male orange-tabby cat brings me birds regularly… or would if he could do something about that bell on his collar. >:3 My thoughts is that if the male cat is uninvolved in parenting, then the behavior of bringing food to a non-hunting member of another species would be something other than a misfiring of parental instinct.

  2. Leopard seals are the best. So helpful. I had a couple too many drinks last Saturday and one gave me a lift home in a rickshaw. Totally nice guy, wouldn’t accept a tip.

    1. Oh, classic rookie mistake! Leopard Seals helping out drunken fellows do it with honor, so to offer a tip is to offend them. However, a dead penguin should set things straight.

  3. My cat’s been trying to teach my son to hunt for a decade now. She delivers all sorts of live rodents to him while he is asleep in bed… once it was a flying squirrel.

    1. I wouldn’t say your cat is teaching your son to hunt, most cats usually show their prize to their master for praise. I think your cat just wanted recognition from your son for its hard work.

  4. Wow, just wow… a story like that with pictures like that – once in a lifetime will he shoot it and will we see it.

  5. Dismembered penguins! That would be a horrible nightmare if it weren’t one of the coolest things I’d ever heard. G*d bless National Geographic and that patient, kind mama seal.

  6. “Endurance”, the book about the failed Shackleton expedition, had a hair-raising description of a man being pursued by a leopard shark up on the ice. Amazing to see this kind of protective behavior in one seriously scary predator.

  7. That is great. It also reminds me of cats who try to teach their owners’ babies and toddlers how to use a litter box, and then wonder why this funny-looking kitten can’t seem to get the hang of such a simple thing.

    1. Huh? My theiving cat is pretty freaked out by the funny-looking kitten. She will not get within 10 feet of him.

  8. Amazing… One of those still photos reminded me of a scaled down plesiosaur not unlike recently unearthed skeletons from England.

  9. I’ve actually had up-close encounters with seals off the coast of Iceland (surfing) and these things are a lot more aggressive than they are given credit for. Beautiful and intelligent animals but carnivorous and with teeth like a polar bear. Funny how some animals seem to escape the reputation of viciousness (I’m thinking Orcas, Hippos, Wilderbeast, wild boar) while others get unfairly singled out (most sharks, most bears, most snakes)

  10. wow that is a great experience! u deserved it;:) with u actually being brave enough to go there(antartica)

  11. Interesting behavior for a leopard seal. I’m fairly surprised; leopard seals have a reputation for nastiness and the jaws to back it up.

  12. Leopard Seals have behaved this way before. I saw, I believe, on Discovery a guy from Norway or Sweden who had the same relationship with a seal…it was about 2 years ago. Maybe it’s the same seal…

  13. Did it slap you upside the head with it’s flipper, to tell you to get a grip?

    Turns out you’re a totally incompetent leopard seal.

  14. He could have presented her with a dead penguin, thus demonstrating his ability to hunt. She would have been so proud of him.

  15. Wow… that’s just absolutely incredible! What an experience! Thank you for sharing this with us! Fabulous!

  16. The seal probably thought he was a vegetarian and was making fun of him, coupled with some light hazing. “Haha! Can’t catch ’em if I bring ’em to you, can’t even catch half dead ones! Don’t like meat? Go on, eat it. Go on… you know you’ll love it!”

  17. She probably was tasting him first when she mouthed him during the “threat display.” Luckily his camera (and head) didn’t taste like food, ergo he must have been something else. What else is there out there that isn’t food? If you don’t eat it, feed it, I guess.

  18. How is this a misfiring instinct?

    It sad to reduce animals to mechanisms that are broken.

    Like scientists wondering if dogs and cats have feelings…when all you have to do is ask an owner and they could tell you definitively that they do…

    This is purely compassion and care…

  19. Saying that an animal has a misfiring instinct is not saying that it is broken. This seems to be a case of a mother who has transferred her motherly instincts to another creature, the photographer, likely because her own pup recently died or was killed, and did not have the time to recover and go back to her normal instincts. This is like the case of the mother lion who kept caring for baby antelope, due to the fact that she had likely lost her own cubs to disease or a male lion.

  20. I saw this the other day, just awesome, sent it around to my friends, everyone seemed to think it was just a touching moment with nature that the photographer was blessed to have had.

  21. i dont know about all these people saying “aww cute”, but i would have shit my pants if a leopard seal put my head in its mouth. those things will try to kill you, and can easily do it.

    Ive heard its best to have a large caliber hand gun on the ice, in case you have to shoot a seal or killer whale that’s trying to breach through the ice (ya know, to eat you)

  22. Pants-shitting is HIGHLY DISCOURAGED when one is wearing a wetsuit, but yes, it does seem a likely event that may have been omitted from the photographer’s narrative due to his cultured sensibilities.

  23. I’m glad event like this still bring a smile to my face.
    Truly wonderful.
    And as always we can learn something from this animal.
    We as a race with our judgements towards everything doesn’t always seem to be true. I think we need a better investigation into the psyche on animals and redefine animal intelligence. My cats are way smarter than it is globally accepted for cats. We’ve all seen amazing animals!
    Yet we do not care enough to find our own connection to these animals. Or find a better way of communication with all these creatures.
    I know I can ramble on and on. But I know I am right.
    We’re a race with lousy goals. Cos we have none.

  24. This is for everyone who believed this guy: He said he saw the lion seal and he was so scared he was shaking yet he swam right up to it. Who does that? Did you notice in the pictures the lion seal looks like it is smiling even laughing that there is one happy lion seal. They look like cartoons they are not actual pictures. And why does this guy not have a video camera everyone has a video camera and especially if you are going to swim with lion seals you would have a video camera. Paul keep your day job.
    This is to stegodon: the other night i was drinking with a friend we were walking home and this lion seal in a rickshaw tried to pick us up he was not so friendly I’m pretty sure he was only after one thing. If you know what i mean. ;)

    1. Well, I’m guessing he didn’t have a video camera because he is a photographer. His medium is not video, just as wedding photographers (generally) don’t bring along a video camera. And he swam up to the seal even though he was frightened … because he is a Nat Geo photographer. I’m guessing he has been in similarly pants-shitting situations before, and is willing to take risks to get amazing pictures.

  25. I swam with leopard seals in Antarctica earlier this year. amazing. Can’t say I’d trust one to feed me dead penguins though. They are just too big and scary!

  26. Animals are actually very, very good at being what they are, and we don’t give them the credit they are due. It they were stupid and ran on instinct alone, they would have perished eons ago, and so would have our ancestors.

    Give this seal some credit for being diligent and industrious, and for being–not caring–involved! enough with the photographer to bring food. She also took a completely unknown and alien situation, sorted through the facts as she understood them, and determined that the other entity was a living being that could use a little dinner. That was quite amazing.

  27. I think it is a mistake to underestimate any water based animal, due to the fact that we know so little about their life or cognitive abilities, as we have no way of interactive study with them. We can pretty much study dogs, cats, etc because they occupy the same plain of life as we do. And I’m not talking about the camera man, though he should feel very lucky to be alive, as Leopard Seals are known to be predators of humans. Labeling it misfiring is also kind of a hasty conclusion, again, given the fact that we know close to NOTHING about the mental operations of such creatures.

    I also feel sad for the animal, that it seemed so distressed about feeding the camera man, if in fact that was what she was trying to do, and if it was caused by losing her young shortly before this. I wonder if she felt that this camera man must have died, when he left and she no longer had anyone to feed.

  28. Paul Nicklen’s subconscious speaks:
    “Oscar? For ‘March of the Penguins’?
    I got your penguins right here! :obscene gesture:
    I love penguins! For breakfast, lunch, dinner,
    between-meal snacks!”

  29. Wow,I would love to do that kind of photography some day,but my husband doesn’t want me to do it because he say that I’m going to get kill.

  30. Okay, does anyone notice that it is not video. This is the same guy that had pictures about a year or so ago of a him feeding a polar bear lol ( like that would happen ) and of course in the age of video cameras he only has “still” pictures. I know it says don’t harass others but this guy is harassing us by trying to convince everyone that this stuff is true and that these wild animals are friendly or that you can get that close to them. He’s giving people a false sense of security and someone is going to try to do what they think he is doing and get hurt or worse. PLEASE PEOPLE DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!!
    : )

  31. My friend was living above a bakery. One day she went down to get some pastries, and her cat followed her in. When she went to shoo him out, tho owner said, “Oh, don’t worry, that’s our cat. He brings us dead mice every day, and we give him a treat for each one.” Turns out the cat would neatly line the mice up at the back door every morning, and act very put out if he was shorted. I imagine that leopard seal was a lot smarter than the cat, so it’s not surprising that he came up with such an interesting behavior.

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