Interview: Doug Allan, wildlife cameraman

Doug Allan in the entrance of a polar bear den
Doug Allan in the entrance of a polar bear den
Share this article
0
Have your say

A CHANCE meeting with Sir David Attenborough kick-started Doug Allan’s career as a wildlife cameraman, and brought television viewers some of the most amazing wildlife footage ever seen

Doug Allan first met Sir David Attenborough more than 30 years ago when he was working as a research diver for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Attenborough and his crew were visiting a BAS base to do some filming when a chance meeting kick-started Allan’s remarkable career as a wildlife cameraman.

Emperor penguins and chicks in Halley Bay, Antarctica. Picture: Doug Allan

Emperor penguins and chicks in Halley Bay, Antarctica. Picture: Doug Allan

In his new book, Freeze Frame, he covers the three decades he has spent filming wildlife in some of the most remote locations in the world, and in the foreword, Attenborough describes their first encounter: “I was standing on the edge of the sea ice in Antarctica looking down at the black water. A head materialised many feet down, slowly rose, surrounded by bubbles, and broke the surface. It was Doug. He removed the mouthpiece of his breathing apparatus and said, in the Scottish accent with which I was to become very familiar, ‘I want to make natural history films for television. How do I start?’”

In the pages that follow, Allan, 60, describes a career that has taken him to the coldest, darkest nooks and crannies of the globe. He has captured moments never before seen on film, had more than his fair share of close shaves, spent periods of up to two-and-a-half years in Antarctica and has been awarded the Polar Medal, which honours British subjects for their extreme human endeavours in Arctic and Antarctic conditions.

When we speak, he has just stepped off a plane from Antarctica. He was at the South Pole less than a week ago, he tells me, so if he seems a little disorientated, well, that’s why.

“I still get great pleasure from the fact that a lot of the things I’ve seen are always going to be reserved for very few people,” he says. “You have to work hard and put up with a lot. It’s been immensely exciting.”

Brought up in Dunfermline, he studied marine biology at Stirling University before working as a diver. After his meeting with Attenborough, he took a camera on his next trip to Antarctica and captured footage of emperor penguins which he sold to the BBC.

Since then he has worked with Attenborough on a number of award-winning programmes including The Blue Planet, Life, Human Planet, Life on Earth and Frozen Planet. Indeed he is the man behind the lens of some of the BBC’s most famous wildlife footage.

Now in his 61st year and showing no signs of slowing down, he has finally realised his career-long ambition to document his work in a book. His stories are fascinating, ranging from the terrifying to the uplifting. There’s the time a walrus grabbed him and dragged him underwater, mistaking him for a seal. Then there’s the harsh Antarctic winter he spent with emperor penguins.

“To watch penguins through the 24-hour darkness in winter,” he says, “then to feel the same relief as they do when the sun comes back, that’s pretty special. Penguins are birds but to us they’re honorary mammals because they’re so human-like that everyone treats them on camera like they’re little people.”

Freeze Frame is page after glossy page of spectacular imagery of life at the poles in all its cruel beauty – covering people and landscapes as well as Allan’s favourite “big, sexy, charismatic animals” from penguins to polar bears – and takes the reader to the heart of what it is to be a wildlife cameraman; the grit and glamour, loneliness and haunting boredom, danger and excitement.

“There are two things to bear in mind when wildlife filming,” he says. “The first is that you can only be in one place at a time. You go where you think is best and if it happens, it happens. The second is that if you’re not there you’ll never get the shot.”

The first mantra allows him to be philosophical about the time he spent a day trying to get shots of polar bears only to return to his cabin with nothing and discover the footprints of a polar bear and her two cubs just metres away. The second pushes him to endure extreme cold and discomfort so that we can enjoy his award-winning footage from the comfort of our living rooms. In the book, he describes his love of the cold, the calm, the isolation, the challenges. He outlines the unique qualities – which few possess – required to capture wildlife footage in the world’s cruellest environments. But above all, he conveys his affinity with his subjects.

“When you’re filming animals in the field you need this sixth sense with the animal that allows you to anticipate their behaviour, but one that also allows you to be within range of the animal but somehow it accepts your presence and carries on,” he says. “For me, in the water with mammals, I like to think that somehow the vibes that I give off, the way that I move will give me a better chance to gain the confidence to move in closer to it and get those more special shots. But there’s also a lot of waiting around while maintaining that level of vigilance and readiness so that when the behaviour does happen you get it. After all, sometimes you only get one chance. You’ve got to nail it.”

The moments in his career he values most highly, he says, are the hundreds of days he has spent with polar bears, but if he could spend half an hour getting close to a male narwhal he would “die a happy man”. Overall, he’s pretty happy with a career that most people have fantasised about at some point or another, but few get to experience. “I just love spending intimate moments in the wild in the company of big, charismatic animals,” he says simply. “It’s unbeatable.”

Doug Allan first met Sir David Attenborough more than 30 years ago when he was working as a research diver for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Attenborough and his crew were visiting a BAS base to do some filming when a chance meeting kick-started Allan’s remarkable career as a wildlife cameraman.

In his new book, Freeze Frame, he covers the three decades he has spent filming wildlife in some of the most remote locations in the world, and in the foreword, Attenborough describes their first encounter: “I was standing on the edge of the sea ice in Antarctica looking down at the black water. A head materialised many feet down, slowly rose, surrounded by bubbles, and broke the surface. It was Doug. He removed the mouthpiece of his breathing apparatus and said, in the Scottish accent with which I was to become very familiar, ‘I want to make natural history films for television. How do I start?’”

In the pages that follow, Allan, 60, describes a career that has taken him to the coldest, darkest nooks and crannies of the globe. He has captured moments never before seen on film, had more than his fair share of close shaves, spent periods of up to two-and-a-half years in Antarctica and has been awarded the Polar Medal, which honours British subjects for their extreme human endeavours in Arctic and Antarctic conditions.

When we speak, he has just stepped off a plane from Antarctica. He was at the South Pole less than a week ago, he tells me, so if he seems a little disorientated, well, that’s why.

“I still get great pleasure from the fact that a lot of the things I’ve seen are always going to be reserved for very few people,” he says. “You have to work hard and put up with a lot. It’s been immensely exciting.”

Brought up in Dunfermline, he studied marine biology at Stirling University before working as a diver. After his meeting with Attenborough, he took a camera on his next trip to Antarctica and captured footage of emperor penguins which he sold to the BBC.

Since then he has worked with Attenborough on a number of award-winning programmes including The Blue Planet, Life, Human Planet, Life on Earth and Frozen Planet. Indeed he is the man behind the lens of some of the BBC’s most famous wildlife footage.

Now in his 61st year and showing no signs of slowing down, he has finally realised his career-long ambition to document his work in a book. His stories are fascinating, ranging from the terrifying to the uplifting. There’s the time a walrus grabbed him and dragged him underwater, mistaking him for a seal. Then there’s the harsh Antarctic winter he spent with emperor penguins.

“To watch penguins through the 24-hour darkness in winter,” he says, “then to feel the same relief as they do when the sun comes back, that’s pretty special. Penguins are birds but to us they’re honorary mammals because they’re so human-like that everyone treats them on camera like they’re little people.”

Freeze Frame is page after glossy page of spectacular imagery of life at the poles in all its cruel beauty – covering people and landscapes as well as Allan’s favourite “big, sexy, charismatic animals” from penguins to polar bears – and takes the reader to the heart of what it is to be a wildlife cameraman; the grit and glamour, loneliness and haunting boredom, danger and excitement.

“There are two things to bear in mind when wildlife filming,” he says. “The first is that you can only be in one place at a time. You go where you think is best and if it happens, it happens. The second is that if you’re not there you’ll never get the shot.”

The first mantra allows him to be philosophical about the time he spent a day trying to get shots of polar bears only to return to his cabin with nothing and discover the footprints of a polar bear and her two cubs just metres away. The second pushes him to endure extreme cold and discomfort so that we can enjoy his award-winning footage from the comfort of our living rooms. In the book, he describes his love of the cold, the calm, the isolation, the challenges. He outlines the unique qualities – which few possess – required to capture wildlife footage in the world’s cruellest environments. But above all, he conveys his affinity with his subjects.

“When you’re filming animals in the field you need this sixth sense with the animal that allows you to anticipate their behaviour, but one that also allows you to be within range of the animal but somehow it accepts your presence and carries on,” he says. “For me, in the water with mammals, I like to think that somehow the vibes that I give off, the way that I move will give me a better chance to gain the confidence to move in closer to it and get those more special shots. But there’s also a lot of waiting around while maintaining that level of vigilance and readiness so that when the behaviour does happen you get it. After all, sometimes you only get one chance. You’ve got to nail it.”

The moments in his career he values most highly, he says, are the hundreds of days he has spent with polar bears, but if he could spend half an hour getting close to a male narwhal he would “die a happy man”. Overall, he’s pretty happy with a career that most people have fantasised about at some point or another, but few get to experience. “I just love spending intimate moments in the wild in the company of big, charismatic animals,” he says simply. “It’s unbeatable.”

LEOPARD SEALS

“Leopard seals,” writes Allan, “give me the biggest buzz. Like polar bears, they’re large, sexy, charismatic, intelligent hunters.” They also happen to have a reputation for aggression. Of the 11 species of seal inhabiting the poles, Allan has been in the water with nine of them, but leopard seals are his favourite.

“Diving with them for Life in the Freezer was very exciting,” he says. “There was a consensus among scientists that a diver swimming with a leopard seal in the water was just asking to be attacked but I had a feeling that it wasn’t like that.

“I’d seen leopard seals a couple of times in the water and I felt that they weren’t going to tear you limb from limb. And so it proved to be. We were able to dive with them while they were hunting penguins and we got some very dramatic shots of them catching the penguins and holding them underwater before tearing them apart. It made for a very powerful eight- minute sequence.”

In Freeze Frame he writes about an occasion where one leopard seal came a little too close for comfort: “They’ll usually tolerate divers, though they may show their annoyance by making threat displays in front of your lens. They open their jaws in a huge gape. I’ve had one take the whole of the front of the camera in its mouth. I could hear its teeth scratching on the metal and could, in all honesty, have focused in on the seal’s tonsils.”

HUMPBACK WHALES

Allan has spent weeks on end filming humpback whales in the Antarctic, but the waters, murky with plankton, don’t make the best backdrop. So he travelled to Tonga – where female humpbacks go to give birth – to film for Planet Earth.

Filming in the gin-clear waters, he spent ten weeks getting up close and personal with 50ft whales. “You can develop a relationship with a whale, with another mammal, in a way that you can’t with a fish or a reptile,” he says. “To recognise a whale between one day and the next – because they are recognisable – and then to know that it is friendly, to spend time in the water close to it watching its behaviour with its calf, that’s

pretty amazing.”

On one occasion, he was filming whales with his then-wife, the photographer Sue Flood, when a calf turned and accidentally clipped Flood on the ankle with its tail, a sensation she described as like being “hit by a sledgehammer”. In her shock, she dropped her camera, which was full of incredible footage.

“I was 20 metres away and had seen the whole thing,” writes Allan. “I was now faced with a choice. Save Sue? Or save the camera? No points for the right answer. Sue was in pain, but floating. The camera, with her great shots on the tape, was disappearing. Only one course of action – it took me maybe about 15 seconds to dive down to retrieve the camera. It took Sue only about five years to forgive me.”

ORCAs

Allan describes capturing a pod of orcas working together to kill a seal as his “Antarctic holy grail.” He looked for the behaviour for decades, when filming Life in the Freezer, Blue Planet and Life, but eventually managed to film it for

Frozen Planet.

“I had heard rumours, 35 years ago when I first travelled to the Antarctic, but it’s a very, very rare piece of behaviour,” he says. “It was absolutely amazing to watch.” The piece of film captures a pod of orcas identifying an isolated seal on an ice floe then swimming towards it together to create a wave which pushes the seal off the ice. Sometimes the animals allow the seal to clamber back to safety, only to do it again, so as to teach their young the technique.

They choose their prey selectively, bobbing their heads above the water to get a good look at the seal first. Crabeater seals are ignored, considered too aggressive and volatile. The more placid weddell seal makes for better prey. Working together, the pod decides to create either a wave which will wash over the ice, pushing the seal off, or an entirely different type of wave which will break the ice up.

The incredible footage caused a sensation around the world when it was first shown on Frozen Planet and was described by Dr Robert Pitman, a scientific advisor on the programme as “some of the most amazing wildlife footage ever taken”.

POLAR BEARS

One of the most famous sequences Allan has captured is of a polar bear and her two cubs emerging from their den in the spring for the first time, the cubs blinking in the unfamiliar sun. Shot for Planet Earth and selected by Sir David Attenborough as one of his favourite wildlife clips of all time, the BBC had been trying to obtain permission to film on Kong Karls Land – an archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic – for 20 years.

Allan and a second cameraman were eventually given access on the understanding that they would have no snowmachines and would be allowed one flight in and one out. “I cannot imagine a more isolated, more lonely yet completely down-to-earth, natural existence than the one I had for the five weeks we looked for those bears,” says Allan.

The two men hung around in -32C temperatures but it was worth the wait. They found the entrance to a den, set up a hide and watched, not knowing if there was even a bear inside. Five weeks later, a bear emerged from the den and set out on a languid slide down the slope.

“You have to remember you’re there for a job,” says Allan. “You need to keep your emotions under control but that moment when she came out of the hole, slid down the slope then started making noises at the den, I knew something was higher up the slope. When I took the lens up and saw two cubs coming out too I really did think we’d hit the jackpot.”

• Freeze Frame is out now and costs £25 plus £6 p&p. To place an order visit www.dougallan.com