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Doug Allan wildlife photographer: Working with polar bears

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If you’ve never heard of Doug Allan, let me introduce him to you. He’s the guy that filmed the polar bears on Planet Earth, among other amazing things.

He filmed footage of a polar bear trying to catch a beluga whale on Blue Planet, and it moved me to such an extent I was shouting “Go on, son!” at the TV. So, you can’t imagine how excited I was to be able to speak to him.

Starting out as a diver at the British Antarctic Survey (the body that studies Antarctic wildlife, among other things), his 30-year career has seen him cover almost all aspects of polar wildlife. However, it’s his work in the Arctic and the region’s beautiful but elusive population of polar bears that Doug is most famous for.

It was a chat I’ll never forget; it’s seriously made me think about what the hell I’m doing with my life, and what the hell we are doing to our planet.

How did you first get started in wildlife photography? Was it a gradual slide into the role or a single ‘eureka’ moment?

It was mostly through meeting David Attenborough. I spent three winters working for the British Antarctic Survey supervising the diving and doing a bit of stills photography and writing work, and he came to our station to film some of the local wildlife.

His crew was on our base for just two days and I helped them with some filming they wanted to do. Now, this was back in February 1981, and over the two days I watched them, talked to them and by the end I basically wanted to do what their camera man was doing. I realised that what I knew about filming underwater in the cold and my experience in the Antarctic were quite unique.

When did you become interested in filming polar bears? What attracted you to them?

My specialty has always been cold places, so it wasn’t long before people asked me to head to the Arctic. The two poles are very similar, but the Arctic has this big, charismatic predator, which you don’t get in the Antarctic, where there’s no predators on the land at all.

My first encounter with a polar bear was in 1988, when the poles were far less accessible than they are today. There was a lot more things to be filmed back then, and as someone who could survive and operate a camera in cold conditions, I was asked to go and film specific bits of polar bear behaviour. The more I’ve worked with them, the more I’ve gotten to know them and the more I’ve learnt how to approach them safely – both from the point of view of my safety and the safety of the bears. It’s pretty much impossible to hide from a polar bear; they can hear and see as good as a human, and can smell a whole lot better.

What’s the most challenging aspect about filming polar bears?

One of the reasons I like filming polar bears is because they’re dangerous. They require a lot experience to understand them, but they’re very satisfying animals to film; both in terms of their behaviour and because they live in one of the most challenging environments on Earth.

When you’re out on the ice you have to be constantly careful. You should stick to ridges and places with a good view point and you have to carry a rifle or a hand gun in case you have to shoot an angry bear. You also need to carry pepper spray and a broad-barrelled revolver that shoot flares that explode near the bear and scare them away. Driving a snow machine aggressively at them also works, as no polar bear will hold its ground.

Just how dangerous are polar bears?

They do eat people. You need to be continually aware of possible polar bears lurking around. The way to be safe around a polar bear is to see it from really far away. It’s the times when you’re not paying attention and they’re trying to get close to you that you’re really in danger. It’s not that they’re usually looking to eat you, but they’re always ready for a meal.

The most dangerous time to be around polar bears is the summer. When the sea ice has melted and the polar bear has been forced onshore, that’s when they’re most hungry. The most dangerous are always the 3- or 4-year-olds in the middle of summer. Females with their cubs can also kill, as they can be very protective, but only if you surprise them or come up on them suddenly. As long as you give a polar bear and her cubs a lot of space, she’ll often take pains to avoid you.

What sort of equipment do you need to take on an Arctic shoot? Do you need a lot of specialised kit?

You don’t need any specialised kit to be honest. In many respects, it’s actually much easier these days with digital cameras than the old film cameras we used to work with. In very, very cold conditions the film used to crack. You’d get very fine hairline cracks across the emulsion that was a problem.

Modern cameras are much easier to work with. You need to make sure you’re carrying enough batteries and make some sort of windproof cover. As it’s a box of electronics, it simply keeps warm by just being on and ready to roll. The lenses are a different story. As they’re mostly mechanical, you have to winterise them. An engineer will take all the normal lubricants and replace them with grease that doesn’t turn sticky and gooey in the cold.

What goes into tracking down wildlife in the Arctic? What does a typical day look like?

There’s a lot of patience involved with working with polar bears. What people tend to forget when people watch nature documentaries is just how long it takes. You might see it in real time, but it could have taken three or four days of waiting to capture the action.

A good time to go for polar bears is in April, as this is the time when the cubs come out of their den and will be walking about on the sea ice with their mum. It’s also the time that polar bears do the most amount of hunting as there is a lot of young seals out on the ice. Most expeditions head up to Svalbard, a group of islands north of Norway. Typically, you’d be living in a cabin, which is comfortable and safe from the bears and working anywhere up to 12 hours a day. In April, there’s still a tiny sunset, so you’ll probably go out noon or late afternoon to get the soft-quality light you need for filming.

In your experience, what have been the biggest impacts on the natural world you’ve had to deal with?

Both Planet Earth’s didn’t dwell on the issues that face the natural world and the planet, but they’re not those kinds of film really. I didn’t expect them to reference climate change, they are meant to marvel at the pure spectacle of the natural world. If you gave them a stronger conservation message it would date the film.

In terms of what I’ve seen, the Arctic has changed a lot. The amount, thickness, and duration of the ice have all changed dramatically in the last 20 years. In the summer, there is less ice, more open water and areas without any ice. The land is losing its snow cover sooner and the summer is getting longer. They all have a big impact on polar bears and how they live and is also changing the basic ecology of the Arctic. It’s very concerning.

Lastly, if you could sum up your life behind the lens in one sentence what springs to mind?

Immensely privileged. Not only for working with David, but also working in the poles. The 30 years between 1975 and 2005 were very special years for both me and the environment. The Arctic was a beautiful place then, but the damage has been massive and both poles will change a lot in the next 30 years.  If we’re not careful, we’re going to jeopardise these areas for future generations.

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