Leopard seal attacks and kills British scientist snorkelling off Antarctic coast

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The Independent Online

A British scientist has been attacked and killed by a leopard seal while on a snorkelling expedition off the coast of Antarctica.

Kirsty Brown, 28, is believed to have drowned on Tuesday afternoon when the seal struck her and dragged her underwater, causing contact to be lost for a few vital minutes. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said yesterday a rescue boat was launched immediately by her colleagues who saw the incident from the shore, but attempts to resuscitate the marine biologist failed.

Ms Brown was part of a team of 22 researchers who were "over wintering" at the BAS's Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The station is Britain's centre for research in biology, geoscience and atmospheric science. She was an experienced diver and had taken part in expeditions off Greenland and the Arctic since 1995, as well as in Australia and the British Isles.

A spokeswoman for the BAS said that Ms Brown was snorkelling at her study site in the bay adjacent to the research station with her snorkelling "buddy" when the seal suddenly attacked. Two colleagues on the shore who saw the incident immediately went to her rescue. They pulled Ms Brown out of the water and began resuscitation procedures in the rescue boat while taking her back to the research station for medical help.

"Despite carrying out cardio-pulmonary resuscitation for one hour, the station doctor and [her] colleagues were unable to revive her," a BAS statement explained.

A solitary creature named after its distinct spotted fur, the leopard seal is endowed with a large head and wide jaws containing canines measuring up to an inch long. The male can grow as long as 3.5 metres and weigh more than 500kg, living for as long as 25 years.

Although leopard seals are known to be highly inquisitive they are not normally aggressive towards humans. "Our divers go into the water every single day of the year and We've never experienced this in 30 years," the BAS spokeswoman said.

Last night, Ms Brown's parents, Tim and Judith Brown, her sisters Didi and Camilla and her brother, Duncan, were at the family home in Southwater, near Horsham, West Sussex. "Naturally we are devastated about the news from the Antarctic - it all seems quite unreal," the family said in a joint statement.

"Kirsty was a great girl and we are all very proud of her. Right now we are looking to spend some quiet time at home with the family."

Ms Brown was investigating the impact of scouring by icebergs on the marine animals living near the shores of the Antarctic peninsula. She had joined the BAS last summer on a 30-month contract.

Her first degree was in geology from the University of London. She then took an MSc in oceanography at Southampton University before moving to Adelaide University in South Australia.

Ms Brown worked as a scientific diver as part of Imperial College's Greenland diving expedition in 1995 and then as a field assistant in Greenland during the summer of 1996 for the Cambridge Arctic Shelf programme and as a research scientist in Canberra.

A keen diver, she had gained qualifications in diving, including a commercial professional award from the Health and Safety Executive.

Professor Chris Rapley, director of the BAS, said: "This is tragic and shocking. My heart goes out to Kirsty's family and her colleagues at Rothera. Kirsty was a vibrant, dynamic individual, committed to her science and with a promising scientific career ahead of her.

"The Rothera team reacted in a highly efficient and professional manner ... They are, however, shaken by the loss of a colleague and will need our support," Professor Rapley added.

Ms Brown will be flown back to Britain after an inquest is held into the death, which will be organised under the auspices of the British Antarctic Territory, the governing body for the region.