1. Identifying the spatial scales at which top marine predators forage is important for understanding oceanic ecosystems. Several methods quantify how individuals concentrate their search effort along a given path. Among these, First-Passage Time (FPT) analysis is particularly useful to identify transitions in movement patterns (e.g. between searching and feeding). This method has mainly been applied to terrestrial animals or flying seabirds that have little or no vertical component to their foraging, so we examined the differences between classic FPT and a modification of this approach using the time spent at the bottom of a dive for characterizing the foraging activity of a diving predator: the southern elephant seal. 2. Satellite relayed data loggers were deployed on 20 individuals during three successive summers at the Kerguelen Islands, providing a total of 72 978 dives from eight juvenile males and nine adult females. 3. Spatial scales identified using the time spent at the bottom of a dive ( = 68.2 +/- 42.1 km) were smaller than those obtained by the classic FPT analysis ( = 104.7 +/- 67.3 km). Moreover, foraging areas identified using the new approach clearly overlapped areas where individuals increased their body condition, indicating that it accurately reflected the foraging activity of the seals. 4. These results suggest that incorporating the vertical dimension into FPT provides a different result to the surface path alone. Close to the Antarctic continent, within the pack-ice, sinuosity of the path could be explained by a high sea-ice concentration (restricting elephant seal movements), and was not necessarily related to foraging activity. 5. Our approach distinguished between actual foraging activity and changes in behaviour induced by the physical environment like sea ice, and could be applied to other diving predators. Inclusion of diving parameters appears to be essential to identify the spatial scale of foraging areas of diving animals.