IF THE SCARIEST moment of your working day is opening the office fridge to see if there’s any milk for your morning cuppa, then spare a thought for Doug Allan.
While most of us are fending off calls from clients or co-workers, Scottish-born Allan could be trying to avoid curious polar bears in the Arctic.
But don’t feel too sorry for him – the genial cameraman and photographer has one of the coolest jobs around: he’s a wildlife cameraman and photographer.
TheJournal.ie caught up with Allan as he prepared for a series of talks around Ireland about his job, and he told us about the highlights of life working on shows such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet with the likes of Sir David Attenborough.
Allan first got interested in underwater activities as a child, after going snorkelling while on a family holiday near the Mediterranean, and reading the Jacques Cousteau book Silent World.
That developed into a full-blown obsession with the sea, leading to him studying marine biology in Stirling University in 1973.
Allan on location in Prince Leopold Island, Lancaster Sound, May 1995. Pic: Tartan Dragon Ltd
“The 60s were a pretty interesting decade to grow up in – the sea was like another frontier; there were two frontiers, space and the sea,” said Allan. That thirst for adventure into unknown lands rubbed off on the young Allan, and when he finished university he began to work as a diver, moving to the Antarctic in 1976 to work as a research diver on the British Antarctic Survey station.
“I’ve always enjoyed trying to go to places that are physically difficult,” he said.
He had a keen interest in photography too, and combined the two while spending time on and off the Antarctic, monitoring the wildlife for work. It must have been a culture shock to go from working in the UK to one of the coldest places in the world, but Allan is a very laidback chap.
“Even now I try to go somewhere with an open mind and try to take whatever’s there,” he said. “I didn’t really know in a way what to expect in the Antarctic. I was a last-minute replacement for someone with a medical problem.”
Snorkeller films Humpback whale female (Megaptera novaeangliae), Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific, 2006. Pic: Sue Flood.
It was while living on base on the three miles-by-three miles island, which is visited by 50,000 penguins during the summer, that he first met David Attenborough. The wildlife expert was on the HMS Endurance filming his second show when the navy ship asked to stop at the base where Allan was located.
That was in 1981, when it was incredibly hard to get to the Antarctic. The crew spent a lot of time in the dive store, where Allan was, and so they got to know each other’s work well.
“They were a great bunch and I gave them a hand for the couple of days,” he recalled.
To be quite honest, after talking to them for a couple of days, suddenly I could see that being a wildlife cameraman was a possible job.
The encouraged him, saying that though he had not much filming experience, he took great photographs. “But most importantly, you know the Antarctic and diving in a way that is quite special – this could be your niche.”
After this, Allan moved to another part of Antarctica to become a base commander, and used his time there to film the breeding cycle of Emperor penguins. He took the footage to the BBC, who bought it from him and effectively kicked off his broadcasting career.
“We as a species are the biggest influence on the planet so far”
Allan with female chimpanzee Billi at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Uganda. Pic: Sue Flood
Since then, he has become a globe-trotting wildlife photographer who has captured a number of firsts, from killer whales washing seals off ice floes to orcas attacking gray whales. He even had to wait 30 years for footage of polar cubs emerging from their den, and put up with a curious – but deadly – polar bear trying to make its way into his own hut.
Allan looks at his stunning photographs as being more functional than artistic, but they do an incredible job of illustrating life on parts of the planet that billions of us will never reach.
Allan filming seals with white sail for camouflage on location in Lake Baikal, Siberia. April 1989. Pic: Tartan Dragon
“It’s all happened by chance,” said Allan of his incredible career. “When I say to people, ‘you know I’m not competitive’, they go, ‘rubbish, you’re the most competitive person I know’. But I don’t think I am, but I do like getting my teeth into something, and I do like coming up with the goods. I don’t like being directly in competition.”
Though he has been in some dangerous situations, he takes it all in his stride. He knows where the personal space boundary of a polar bear lies, how best to tell if animals are curious or aggressive, and how best to get an animal on side for filming.
“What I like working with are mammals,” he said.
The reason with mammals is we are all mammals – when I look out at an audience there are as many shades of character in an audience. It’s exactly the same when you meet a pod of whales or a troupe of monkeys… they all have individual characters – some will be curious, some will be friendly, some will be aggressive, some will be very shy and wary.
For Allan, an enjoyable challenge when filming “is that part of the job is to get on the wavelength of the animal, and recognise what character it is and make your approach, and take you how deal with that animal, take their personality into account, because only by doing that will you get the best out of them”.
“So if you meet an animal that’s shy, they need to take their time to get to know you. You meet an animal that’s aggressive, you might want to avoid at all costs. Or maybe a certain way of not looking at it will calm it down.”
With some animals, like chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins or toothed whales, they have to be treated “more like an 18-20 month old baby where there’s no verbal communication between you but there’s a whole lot of body language, tone of voice, a whole range of subtle things which some people have and some people don’t have and some people have lost”, said Allan.
He didn’t get into the job just because of the love of animals, but that has changed over time. Today, Allan is a fierce advocate for animals, and his talks don’t just cover what he does for his job, but what humans can do to help save the planet.
“We as a species are the biggest influence on the planet so far,” said Allan, who campaigns against plastic pollution and against drilling in the arctic.
“The more that human beings have impacted on the world, the more we’ve lost the knowledge that we’re actually part of it,” he pointed out.
“Very few humans think of themselves as being part of the ecosystem; they always think of humans and the ecosystem and the two are separate. They’re not, they’re all part of the same thing and if they could just establish that connection, think of things in a natural holistic way, we wouldn’t have the problems we’ve got.”
Filming under arctic ice. Pic: Doug Allan
He has worked in the Arctic for 25 years, which is the location at the forefront of climate change, and so has seen the visible changes global warming has brought to the planet.
“You think 2 degrees centigrade isn’t much, but it is a lot when it goes from -1 to +1, because that’s the melting / freezing point of water. Everything changes when you start to thaw things out. And the Arctic is on that cusp.”
He has also seen a change in the weather systems there, which he describes as “all over the place, the ice is breaking up, rain is coming early, it’s generally a bit of a mess, things are becoming less predictable”.
Allan on location, Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific, during filming for Planet Earth, Sept 2005.
He advises that we should be looking at the Arctic as it will be in 20 years time, examining very carefully the development there and seeing how we can protect it.
“You can’t talk about the poles without talking about climate change,” summarised Allan.
Looking at his photographs and footage, and the incredible animals and lands that are being impacted by the changes caused by humans, it’s clear that work like his is hugely important.
Doug Allan will speak about Life Behind the Lens during 11 dates around Ireland from 19 September to 4 October. For the full line-up, see his website.