There is something magical about filming wildlife that has never learnt to fear humans. Parts of South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula are magnets for wildlife looking for a place to breed. The largest year-round resident in Antarctica is a tiny wingless fly; all the other species that spend time on land are seasonal visitors. We had plenty of time to film many different species of whales, penguins, albatross and seals and follow the evolving drama of their daily lives over the austral summer. I saw tiny, fluffy penguin chicks turn into motley teenagers and then cheered them on as they left the safety of their colonies for the open seas. In the Arctic and other places I have had to struggle for weeks and months to try and get close enough to animals to get a shot. At the end of this expedition we had almost 600 hours of amazing high definition footage to work with.
Filming on land was one of our daily challenges. The crew surveyed each beach for a good landing spot. 'Good' is a relative term there because the waves and undertow make loading and unloading, without getting everyone wet, quite a challenge. Once we had all climbed down the ladder from SEDNA's deck into the bobbing Zodiac we headed to shore – usually that was the easy part. Next came the fun - navigating through the surf. It takes a lot of skill, good timing and some luck to run the Zodiac up onto the beach.
We usually had two people in dry suits holding it in position whilst we leapt out and quickly unloaded the gear. With a little luck the next incoming wave didn't fill your boots or swamp the Zodiac. Under normal circumstances this would be an exciting adventure, however, we were travelling with a crane that could put the camera seven meters in the air. Unfortunately it is made up of many heavy parts: including ten sixteen-kilo weights and many sandbags.
Filming in frigid Antarctic water was a challenge for our divers and underwater cameramen. Not only was there ice and currents, but there were also leopard seals. They are large, powerful carnivores that dine on everything from krill to penguins to other seals, and they have been known to stalk divers. The divers wore dry suits, except on their heads and hands, which were wetsuits. Depending on the depth of the dive they could spend up to an hour in the water. Unfortunately for much of the summer the water was very murky because of the plankton bloom. It was rather like shooting in a giant soup.
Essential to our story was the research being done by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey, the National Science Foundation and Direccion Nacional del Antárctico and the Instituto Antárctico. They are a hardy lot and were very generous with us; sharing not only their experience, but also their facilities. The short austral summer is their busy time. About 4000 people, mostly scientists, work in Antarctica during the summer, but only a few stay for the winter.
We were the first film crew allowed onto Bird Island, South Georgia to film in many years. This station is small, even by Antarctic standards. Many of the field technicians were doing their second year on base when we met them. Once you have run the fur seal gauntlet the first thing you have to do once you are inside the station is find a place to hang your many outer layers. Bird Island is infamous for its bad, all four seasons in one day weather. Dressing for success in the field meant creating a unique set of layers. I discovered that the seal people wore different ones from the bird people.
There were only 11 people living on the base (only four would stay for the winter). I had already met some of them in Cambridge, UK, earlier in the year, however, on arrival I was somewhat discombobulated as there seemed to be a disproportionate number of bottle blonds. Ever polite I decided not to say anything. Later I learnt that "going blond" is part of a 20-year tradition for everyone living on base – men and women. It happens after the fur seal researchers have given the first seal pup born on the seal study beach a unique blond hair dye pattern (they loose their dye job after their first moult). It seems that the human 'blonding' is an act of solidarity with the pups. Sarah, a veteran seal researcher who has been living at the base for more than 2 years, was the one with the job of wielding the bleach bottle on the humans. Some of our team decided to get into the spirit…
Bill Fraser, who has studied the Adélie penguins for more than 30 years, was the focus of our shoot at Palmer Station. Working with people like Bill is one of the things that I enjoy the most about filmmaking; because for a brief moment, scientists like Bill open a door and allow us to experience a world that they have an intimate knowledge of, and love for. Unfortunately his work shows all too clearly that the decline in the number of Adélies is a result of the changes that the Peninsula is experiencing as a consequence of climate change.