The Polar Flu and a Playful Predator

posted: 05/15/12
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Leopard Seal
Magnus Elander |

Göran Ehlmé is a colorful character and you'd have to be to enjoy diving into icy waters and filming an unpredictable predator like a leopard seal.

"I'm not a total maniac," Ehlmé says. "I believe that time and knowledge and patience most animals, even the dangerous ones, don't have to be dangerous."

The Swedish underwater cameraman has been filming nature documentaries since 1993 and taking still photographs of marine life since 1984. His underwater photography career began during his first trip to the Arctic and he was hooked.

"I guess you can say I caught the "polar flu," Ehlmé says.

Wanting to go back to the Arctic and finding the cost of getting to the ends of the Earth prohibitive, Ehlmé decided to pursue a film career with television production companies that had the money to finance his trips and his new passion.

"I learned that no one had ever dived with walruses," Ehlmé says. "I knew that if I filmed them I could get producers interested in the footage. Walruses can be very dangerous; they can kill you very easily."

Ehlmé would soon learn that the leopard seal could be just as dangerous as the walrus, and he has had plenty of close calls in his five years of filming them.

"As soon as I got into the water [to film a leopard seal] for the first time, I had a huge seal open her jaw and bite in the water next to me," Ehlmé recalls.

That seal punctured his little boat and he thought the boat would sink. But he decided to try again.

"The same thing happened again, so we go back to the yacht and empty a bottle of whiskey and decide to go home."

But Ehlmé would return again.

"I didn't want them to call me the chicken Swede."

In another close call, Ehlmé remembers that he wanted to get a shot of penguins underwater that required him to drill a hole into the ice for his pole camera.

"I was down on my knees moving the ice out of the way when a huge leopard seal came charging out from the hole I created," he says. "It was like out of a horror film.

"I was thrown back on my back, which is not a good position if you need to move," Ehlmé explains. "And she started trying to bite me everywhere, and I mean everywhere! She was going to pull me under the ice like she does with penguins to kill and eat them."

But he doesn't fault the seals. He says it is in their predatory nature to jump on the ice and grab anything within reach; plus they'd, most likely, never seen humans before.

Ehlmé even managed to befriend a leopard seal while filming Danger Under the Ice. One female, which he named "Yellow Belly" for the yellow patch of skin on her stomach, began to follow him around during filming.

"She was like a dog, always next to me," he says. "If I was filming on the surface, she was right next to me with her whiskers on my neck.

"She would bring me 10 to 15 dead penguins, which made filming difficult," Ehlmé recalls. "That has never happened before and never again and I've dived with over 100 species."

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