Thomas Orde-Lees woke with a start. He rolled onto his side and stared idly towards nothing in particular. It was not only a new day, but the beginning of a new year. It was the first day of January, 1916, in the middle of the Antarctic continent. Orde-Lees climbed from his sleeping bag and stepped into the frigid weather outside his shared tent. Like the rest of the stranded crew of the Endurance, he slept fully clothed to keep his body from freezing in the night.
Orde-Lees hurried to where Charles Green had fired up their blubber-burning stove. Green was the expedition cook, but he could not begin preparing the crew’s breakfast until Orde-Lees, the storekeeper, had issued him the daily rations.
“Mornin’, Thomas,” Green said, nodding towards Orde-Lees. Green’s face was dark, stained black by the smoke from the Blubber-Stove. The blackened face seemed such a stark contrast against the white ice that covered the terrain the men traversed. Orde-Lees nodded back at Green, before fishing at the stores and gathering the daily rations. He noticed how low the crew had gotten on stores and pulled a paper from his pocket, on which tallies and figures had been written. After looking from the paper back to the stores, and finally back to the paper, Orde-Lees let out a sigh and shook his head mournfully.
He delivered the morning rations to Green, and stared at the stove in a downcast manor. “According to my figures, we’ve got rations for another fifty days,” he said.
Green snorted. “By the looks of the portions you brought me today, I’m surprised! Only fifty?” he asked mockingly. “Are you sure you couldn’t squeeze another couple weeks out of this stuff?”
Orde-Lees frowned, obviously hurt by the comments. “I do my best with what we’ve got, Green! You could cut me some slack you know! So long as each man eats no more than two pounds of ration a day, it should last us fifty days! After all, I’m trying to be generous with the men!”
“I’m sorry, Tom,” Green shrugged, “we’re all on edge. If only we had some penguin meat… or seal steak! We could supplement the rations. You know, give the lads something else to chew. As it stands, our meals are just so meagre.”
Nodding, Orde-Lees agreed. “I know, Charles. But hunting has been scarce. We haven’t so much as seen a penguin the last few days! It’s so very odd… this time last year, game was abundant. Such a stark contrast for Nineteen-Sixteen, eh?”
Green smiled. “That’s right!” he said. “It’s a new Year. Last year, we thought we’d be well across the continent by now. I guess none of us is a prophet.”
Orde-Lees grinned at the jest, but sobered quickly. The thought was a discouraging one. The year had been full of many set-backs and not much progress. At least, not as much as the crew had hoped for.
As the pair sat staring at the blubber stove and thinking over the past year, Frank Wild approached them and sat as well. “Mornin’, lads.” He said, stretching his palms towards the stove. “Bloody cold, isn’t it?” he paused and stared at the amassed rations beside the stove. “That’s not breakfast, is it?” he asked. Orde-Lees rolled his eyes before he stood and scanned the horizon.
Wild was second in command of the crew. The man was friendly and well-liked by the men. Green smiled at his jest now, and began placing the rations in pans for warming.
“We’ll be going hunting again today, then.” Frank said, still staring at the small sized breakfast. “We need something to supplement the ration with.”
Orde-Lees held up a hand. “I’ll go, Wild. I can travel pretty quickly on my skis. I’ll be able to cover more distance than some of the other men that way.”
Frank nodded. “Alright, I’ll send out a few of the other lads too, but you can go, Lees. You might as well leave right after you’ve finished morning grub. If we’re going to bring anything down, it won’t be while sitting around the stove.”
The chores were divvied up amongst the crew, and Orde-Lees was included in those sent out to hunt. He set off away from the camp at a quick pace, slowing when he’d gotten a sufficient distance between them. He used his ski poles to pull himself as he slid across the ice floes.
Orde-Lees had crossed a number of floes before he finally stopped to scan the horizon. His eyes flitted here and there, but he saw nothing. He was alone, just him and miles of ice. If he was to kill any game today, it had not yet surface from the water beneath the ice floes. After a few moments of watching the ice, Orde-Lees began his trek again, this time skiing across the ice more slowly and watching the floes carefully for emerging heads between cracks and crevices. He was so thorough in his search, it was mid-day before he stopped again. He allowed his eyes one last sweep of the horizon before snorting in a disgruntled fashion and turning to head back for camp.
He skied even slower now, stopping frequently to look here and there for sign of life. But his hunt had been in vain. There was no sign of game, no matter where he looked. It was a powerful disappointment his stomach growled for lack of food, and the thought of a meagre dinner did nothing to help. As he approached the camp, he spied the makeshift tents and men going about their business in the ice and cold.
Suddenly, Orde-Lees heard a splashing sound and he turned to see a round head looking at him from the exposed water between floes. The head was that of an enormous leopard seal and as Orde-Lees exchanged looks with the monstrous seal, he noticed the hunger in its eyes. He turned and fled, pulling on his ski poles with every ounce of his might.
“Wild!” he yelled as he sped over the ice, “Wild! Help! Bring your gun!”
Orde-Lees glanced over his shoulder and spied the leopard seal tearing after him, its mouth open as it ran. He could see the rows of sharp teeth in the creature’s maw, saliva dripping from between. The seal rushed after him, rocking in the characteristic way seals traversed the ice. As Orde-Lees pulled away as fast as he could, he could hear the sea leopard gaining on him from behind. In a few more bounds, it was sure to be on him and then he’d be the game of the day. But as suddenly as the seal had appeared, it left, diving between the floes and into the frozen depths beyond.
Orde-Lees continued to yell for Wild as he hurried towards the camp. He began to calm as he noted the seal was no longer anywhere to be seen. Perhaps he had simply been too quick, too much of a hassle to catch. He was about to cross onto safer ice when the jagged opening just ahead of him splashed upwards and the leopard seal leapt onto the floe with a spray of chilling water. Orde-Lees gave in to panic and his calls for help became near unintelligible screams of fear. The sea leopard lunged at him, snarling, its jaws open as wide as they could. The hunter dashed back the way he’d come, not bothering to look back over his shoulder.
Wild was in his tent when he heard the yells. He thought he head his name being called, before his ears picked up the higher pitched screams of terror. He grabbed his rifle and a box of cartridges before tearing out of his tent and towards the sounds.
As he crested a low hummock of ice, Wild could finally survey the scene for himself. He was shocked by what he saw: a terrified Orde-Lees forcing himself across the ice as fast as he could pull, and an enormous leopard-spotted seal chasing him. The monster was gaining on the man, leaving Wild little time to react. He leaped from the hummock and tore after them, running across the ice in an attempt to get within rifle range of the sea leopard. As he ran, Wild forced cartridges into the chamber of the rifle until he could load no more. He yelled at the top of his lungs, hoping the seal would turn from its pursuit of Orde-Lees to himself instead. To Wild’s relief, the seal took the bait.
Wild dropped to one knee, steadied the rifle, and fired. The bullet ripped into the seal’s carcass, painting the ice with crimson blood. But the seal still came on. Wild fired once more, yanking back the bolt and ramming it forward again. His second bullet also found its mark, but the seal never slowed. It tore towards him, racing full-bore. As the monstrous sea leopard closed in, Wild fired a third time and a fourth, both shots hitting the animal squarely, and both doing little to stop it.
The seal was now within thirty feet of Wild and closing. Its mouth agape, the rows of yellowed teeth arrayed for Wild to see. He steadied the rifle, his heart beating in his ears. Sweat trickled down his face and back as the rifle raised and lowered with his breath.
“Come on, now, Wild lad.” He said to himself “Make this shot count, or you’re dead man.”
Staring down the sights of the rifle, Wild exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The seal stopped and plunged to the ice, finally halted by death. Wild breathed in slowly and let out a sigh of relief. His stiff arms loosened and dropped to his sides and he stood to walk off the shakes that his body had contracted. Orde-Lees arrived, his eyes round and wide. There was a trail of blood from where Wild’s first shot had struck the seal to where it lay not far at all from where Wild had knelt to fire.
Orde-Lees kept looking from the dead seal to Wild and back. He was out of breath and shaking as well. “That was a close shave.” He said, his voice hoarse from his yelling and heavy exertion. Wild only nodded. He walked up and down the length of the seal his eyes never leaving it.
Orde-Lees paced it out, calling to Wild that the animal was twelve feet long. “Bloody thing’s a monster!” he exclaimed, giving the seal a push with his boot. “Green’s got his wish after all! This seal ought to yield plenty meat to supplement the rations with. We’ll be eating like kings!”
Wild nodded. “All I know, is I better get a bloody, massive slab of steak from this beast. If that last shot hadn’t brought him down, he’d be feasting on me right about now.”
“I’m just glad you showed up when you did, Wild. I might have died of heart failure if he didn’t catch me up first! He was fast for not having any legs! And clever, too. He tracked my shadow from under the ice and leapt out in front of me!”
Soon, a number of crew members, having heard the shots and cries for help, arrived at the sight of the seal. All of them were amazed by the size of the seal and a round of cheers went up when the story of the encounter was told.
The seal was dragged back to camp and butchered. When the men opened its carcass they discovered the remains of three smaller seals; several of the monster’s earlier meals. When the leopard seal’s jawbone was removed, it measured near nine inches across. The men gave it to Orde-Lees as a souvenir of the encounter. An encounter, he was loath to forget, souvenir or no. As far as Orde-Lees and Wild were concerned, such an experience was the nearest they ever planned to approach death.