Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sea captain who nodded off on Antarctic beach gets a wild wake-up call

Resting on a deserted beach the last thing sea captain Jerome Poncet expected was a huge blubbery local to join him for a spot of sunbathing.

But that's exactly what happened when a four-ton male elephant seal caught him cat napping near his territory in South Georgia.

The Frenchman had piloted his boat Golden Fleece to Britain's most remote colony, near Antarctica, with an expedition team of six wildlife photographers on board, and found the local inhabitants more than happy to pose for pictures.

Mr Poncet, 55, even attracted a flock of King Penguins as he caught forty winks. Pictures show how at one point he had a massive wild elephant seal on one side and a large group of curious penguins on the other.

The group had travelled thousands of miles to capture the explosive rutting season of the colossal elephant seal males.

After they arrived the team set out to picture the dramatic fights between the bulls.

Free from his duties, the captain, who has lived for most of his life in the Falkland Islands, decided to rest on St. Andrew's Bay. But as he snoozed near the water one inquisitive elephant seal hauled itself towards him - ending up just a few feet away.

Czech wildlife photographer Vaclav Silha, 60, from Prague, led the expedition and turned to see the amazing showdown before him.

'Jerome is such a deep sleeper he didn't seem to notice the huge male come over to inspect him,' he said. 'The seal must have wondered what this strange creature was.

'I didn't wake him because from it's body language it was clearly just interested and wanted to investigate.

'Also, the animals only become aggressive when provoked. Jerome has been sailing to Antarctica for over 30 years, so he understands many of the species very well. I knew he was safe from having a heart attack if he woke up and saw this beast in front of him.'

Mr Silha added: 'It got better as a group of King Penguins joined in, and even some sea birds.

'I'm glad he fell asleep because it gave me a great view of some amazing wildlife.
'And it was a great moment for a picture that he can hang on his wall forever.'

During their rutting season South Georgia is home to up to 400,000 elephant seals and an astonishing 450 000 King pinguins.

The pod being watched by the team contained 3000 individuals alone.  It attracts wildlife photographers around the world because of the diversity of species in huge numbers.

'You have to be careful not to approach the animals on the island so that you don't disturb them,' mr Silha explained.

'But they are not afraid of humans and many will approach human visitors just to have a look. Humans look very different to any other creature there, so we must really stand out.'

Successful full-sized elephant seal males can lead harems of hundreds of females.

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