Even with the drysuit on, when Astrid jumped into the water, the cold was like a kick in the chest. She couldn’t ever remember being that cold; even standing in the Antarctic night while Remie repaired the ice sensor. A minute later though she forgot the temperature as what seemed like a hundred penguins shot past her. They looked more like they were flying than swimming and soared along at incredible speed. Her eyes followed them and she saw more in the distance, along with a large dark patch in the water.
“That’s a bait ball,” said Dr. Feuillée’s voice over the radio. “It’s a huge cloud of krill. We’re going to swim over toward it. I want to remind you to be on your toes. There could be other creatures arriving to feed on the krill or the penguins and some of them can be dangerous. If you see something, report it, and then swim back toward the ship.”
They swam about a hundred meters until they could make out the enormous cloud of life, though it was only possible to identify it as krill by the few stragglers that swam closer to the humans. They proved to be the luckier members of their species, since the penguins left them alone, either because of their proximity to people, or the bird’s desire to scoop up more than one at a time.
“Keep a sharp lookout for orcas,” said one of the crewmen, Astrid couldn’t tell which one.
“I thought killer whales didn’t come in close to the ice,” said Christopher.
“That’s true in the arctic,” said Dr. Feuillée, “but down here we have a different and much larger population and they have taught each other to hunt far into the ice flows.”
“They aren’t dangerous to humans are they?” wondered Astrid.
“There’s no recorded case of an orca attacking a human in the wild. Still, they are powerful wild creatures and it is good not to take that for granted.”
Only a few seconds later, Astrid caught her first glimpse of an Antarctic mammal swimming underwater. It wasn’t a killer whale though, but a seal. It was about seven feet long, with fur that was almost white.
“Crabeater seals,” said Dr. Feuillée. “They don’t eat crabs though. They eat almost exclusively krill.
Soon there were dozens of lightly colored seals, pausing only briefly to eye the strangers before shooting into the cloud of krill. Then Astrid saw another seal. This one had to be at least ten feet long, with spotted fur, and was much heavier than the crabeaters. She recognized it as a Weddell Seal. She looked around but didn’t see any others like it.
“We have only about ten more minutes,” said Dr. Feuillée. “Lucas, Emma, and Enzo are going in with me for some closer shots. You kids stay back here with Hugo.”
The four researchers swam toward the feeding penguins and seals, lighting up the dark water with massive movie lights attached to the cameras. Astrid and the others did as directed but having nothing to do but watch the filming from a distance gave her time to remember just how cold she was. She was starting to feel a dull ache in her fingers and toes.
Suddenly a cloud passed over her. She looked up and for a second she thought the Weddell Seal had returned to give her a second look. Though it was about the same size and color, this was not the same seal. Instead of the friendly smile common to most pinnipeds, this creature had a mouth full of sharp teeth that would have put a Siberian tiger to shame.
“Leopard seal!” called Hugo, with a hint of panic in his voice.
Before anyone could do or say anything else, the sea mammal shot down toward them like a rocket. It opened its mouth and latched onto Astrid’s right foot, dragging her along like a big dog would drag a play-toy. Though she flailed her arms and kicked her feet, she was unable to get away, or even slow her descent, and the leopard seal dragged her down into the depths.