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Beautiful blue planet: top wildlife cameraman Doug Allan is coming to Southampton
YOU might not know who Doug Allan is, but chances are you are familiar with his work.
He has been behind the cameras for such hugely successful BBC series as Blue Planet, Life, Human Planet, Planet Earth, Ocean Giants and Frozen Planet.
Among those who sing his praises is Sir David Attenborough, who said: “For me, wildlife cameramen don’t come much more special than Doug. There’s just no one else who knows these frozen worlds as he does.”
But unsurprisingly, there are dangers involved in getting such stunning images.
“Walrus can be difficult and unpredictable under water,” he says.
“One grabbed me while I was filming in the Arctic waters north of Baffin Island.
It came up from directly below without warning and put its front flippers firmly around my legs.
“I hit it hard on the head and luckily for me, it immediately let go and swam off.
That’s how they catch seals – they hold onto them and drown them.”
Staying on the subject of overly-close animal encounters he adds: “It would also be hard to beat the occasion in the Antarctic when a three-metre-long leopard seal swam up to me, opened its jaws wide in a threat display, then took the whole front end of my camera’s lens into its mouth. I could hear the scrape of the seal’s teeth on the lens, and looking down the viewfinder I was able to focus on its tonsils!
“It held that position for about five seconds then opened its jaws and swam off.”
And it’s not just the animals that pose a threat in Doug’s line of work.
He says that the most potentially dangerous place where he films is on frozen sea ice, which is very unstable and begins to break up in early summer.
“It’s easy to get cut off from land, yet that’s when many of the marine mammals are coming back and when you need to be on the ice to film them.”
Doug’s career as an Arctic photographer grew out of his love of diving as a boy in Dunfermline. This led to him doing a marine biology degree, but on graduating he decided he didn’t want to be in ‘science at the sharp end’ and instead looked for jobs which involved diving.
He read about someone who had been a scientific diver in the Antarctic, loved the sound of it and soon had a contract at one of the British Antarctica Survey’s research bases. While there, he met David Attenborough, who visited the base with a film crew and Doug realised that filming wildlife was the career for him.
“The bottom line was, being a wildlife cameraman encompassed so much of what I enjoyed – diving, photography, adventure, travel, scientific knowledge and creativeness.
And it also seemed like a lot of fun!” he adds.
And he was right – it is a career he loves.
“One of my most satisfying moments was watching the polar bear cubs come out of their den for the first time on Kong Karl’s Land filming for Planet Earth,” he says.
“That was wonderful, because we’d been there for weeks before we found a den and we thought we might fail completely.”
Then there was the first time he got close to a large whale, when filming Right Whales in Argentina in 1989.
“This female was so friendly that she ended up pushing me up through the water on her rostrum (beak), while I gently rubbed her head,” he remembers.
“To be in the presence of a friendly fifty-tonne whale and look it straight in the eye – just sheer magic!”
And his job has, of course, taken him to some breathtaking places – literally. “The high slopes of Everest were amazing, not only because of the spectacular views, but also because of the sheer emotions and physical exhaustion involved.
“At 7,300m, there is so little oxygen that the slightest effort leaves you breathless. But at the same time, the light has a piercing clarity and you really do feel like you’re near the top of the world.”
Doug says he is most at home filming in cold environments and his favourite animals are polar bears.
“I’ve made around 25 trips to film different aspects of polar bear behaviour,” he says.
“Every time I watch a bear I learn something new.”
Doug says that adrenaline is his ‘drug of choice’ and it’s easy to see how exciting his job is, whether he’s being woken up by a polar bear pawing him or building a relationship with a humpbacked whale. But patience is also essential.
He had to wait almost two months in the Himalayas before he saw a snow leopard and was able to film it.
“The rule of thumb for a cameraperson is that a week in the field will bring you one minute on the screen in the finished program,” he says.
Doug’s book, Freeze Frame, about his life as a polar cameraman is out now. He will be talking about his amazing life behind the lens at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, on October 11, Salisbury Arts Centre on October 13 and Portsmouth Guildhall on October 20.
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