South X: Interview with the sea leopard

Double Entendre of the Day:
“You know how to do it. But you just sit there and do nothing with it every time it comes to your mouth.”
Monika explains why John can’t speak Spanish.

I want to share my favourite piece of prose that I’ve read in…I don’t know. Years, perhaps. Frederick Cook was the American surgeon onboard de Gerlache’s Belgica expedition of 1897. It was a multinational crew, with Belgians, Poles, Romanians, and the Norwegian First Mate Roald Amundsen, who would of course years later be the first man to reach the South Pole. (I almost wrote ‘Fist Mate’ there, but that has an entirely different connotation.) De Gerlache’s was the first expedition to stay in the Antarctic over winter, after becoming trapped in the ice. I’ve already told you something about leopard seals, aka sea leopards. So here is an excerpt from Cook’s account of the voyage.

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A few nights past a sea leopard interviewed the meteorologist, Arctowski. The animal sprang suddenly from a new break in the ice onto the floe, upon which Arctowski had a number of delicate meteorological instruments, and without an introduction, or any signs of friendship, the animal crept rapidly over the snow and examined Arctowski and his paraphernalia with characteristic seal inquisitiveness. The meteorologist had nothing with which to defend himself, and he didn’t appear to relish the teeth of the leopard as it advanced and separated its massive jaws with a bear-like snort. He walked around the floe, the leopard after him. The seal examined the instruments but they were not to its liking, and as to Arctowski, it evidently did not regard him of sufficient interest to follow long, for after it had made two rounds the seal plunged into the waters, swam under the ice and around the floe, and then raised its head far out to get another glimpse of the meteorologist. Thinking that the creature contemplated another attack, Arctowski made warlike gestures, and uttered a volley of sulphureous Polish words, but the seal didn’t mind that. It raised its head higher and higher out of the water, and displayed its teeth in the best possible manner. Now and then its lips moved, and there was audible a weird noise, with signs which we took to be the animal’s manner of inviting its new acquaintance to a journey under the icy surface, where they might talk over the matter out of the cold blast of the wind, in the blue depths below.


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