In a tragedy that has stunned the Antarctic research community, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) marine biologist Kirsty Brown was killed by a leopard seal while undertaking survey work on the Antarctic Peninsula on 22 July. Brown was snorkeling with another researcher near the U.K.'s Rothera Research Station when the seal attacked without warning and pulled her underwater. Brown was rescued quickly but efforts to resuscitate her failed.
Brown, 28, trained in geology and oceanography, worked as a diver and research scientist in Greenland and Australia before joining BAS's Life at the Edge: Stresses and Thresholds (LATEST) research program last summer. Her project was aimed at investigating the effects of iceberg disturbance on plant and animal communities inhabiting the near-shore Antarctic seabed. She had nearly completed the first phase, which involved laying out 500 concrete and plasticine markers to monitor iceberg gouging on the seabed.
BAS ecophysiologist Lloyd Peck, head of the LATEST program, describes Brown as "full of energy and enthusiasm ... a good scientist who worked very hard and could do boring mundane aspects of work with a smile on her face." He says he "wished all scientists were like Kirsty" and is determined to keep her project going.
Leopard seals, although often inquisitive when encountering humans, do not usually attack unless provoked, but BAS divers are instructed to avoid working where leopard seals are present. According to the BAS, this is the first such attack in 30 years of diving and snorkeling by its staff. Peck says that researchers routinely dive during the winter months and that it is not a particularly risky time of year to be in the water.
British Antarctic Territory coroner Nick Sanders will conduct an official inquiry as soon as weather conditions allow an emergency flight to Rothera. Meanwhile, BAS deputy director John Dudeney will lead an internal investigation to see if there are any lessons to be learned from the incident. According to BAS, initial reports suggest that Brown and her colleague followed all safety procedures and that station staff handled the incident appropriately.
British Antarctic Survey