You might know Doug Allan because of his spectacular cinematography. In his 30-year filming career, he’s been involved with over 60 films and series, and has worked for BBC, Discovery, National Geographic and many others, filming on series such as The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Human Planet and Frozen Planet.
His photographic awards include seven Emmy’s and four BAFTA’s. He has twice won the underwater category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Medal for his wildlife images. Last year, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.
But you probably won’t know Allan for his views on being hugged by a Walrus, why he gives Svalbard airport café a wide berth, or what he thinks about making films on ocean conservation. Read on to find out what Allan has to say about these as well as some of his other stories.
AB: You’ve said that your early career ambitions were to work “underwater, anywhere”. What attracted you to diving?
DA: I was drawn to the water in the 60’s when quite honestly there were two frontiers. There was space and the ocean, and they were talked about in the same paragraph. I couldn’t go into space, but anyone could go underwater.
Back then, underwater was a much more foreign environment then it is now. I read The Silent World [by Jacques-Yves Cousteau] when I was 11 or 12, and it really fired me up with that sense of underwater adventure. It was exciting and romantic, and I liked the idea of getting close to dangerous animals. Classic things that would attract a wee boy.
AB: Are those the same reasons you went to be a research diver in Antarctica?
DA: When I graduated as a biologist, I didn’t want to be a full on scientist. I wanted to help scientists underwater because I simply felt I was a better diver than many of them. Back in those days, it was slightly unusual for scientists to dive, and I had been working as a pearl diver in Scotland and as a diver in the central Sudanese Red Sea, so when the vacancy for a diver in Antarctica came up, I didn’t think too much about it, I just applied.
I was offered a one year contract to take the place of somebody who had left. Normally, when you go to the Antarctic you get the job about June or July and then you go to a big conference in Cambridge to learn about BAS and meet all the other people who have jobs in the Antarctic. But I bypassed all that completely, and when I arrived on base, I had only been to Cambridge for about a week, then flown down to the bottom of South America and been on a ship for four days. I arrived on the base on one morning, and the following day, the ship left for the winter. We wouldn’t see any other people for nine months.
AB: You spent five winters in Antarctica. How do you cope with that type of isolation?
DA: The most isolated place was a base called Halley, and I got a chance to be the base commander there. The 16 of us on the base were isolated for 11 months; we only got one ship during the year. There’s no exposed rock for 150 miles, and the sun doesn’t come above the horizon for 100 days.
I think the whole BAS experience is great if you hit it at the right time in your life. If you’re the right kind of person to be there, then there’s nothing else like it—you don’t really notice the isolation, or if you do, then it’s something that you take on and almost thrive under. But I have to say that the isolation back then was very different from now.
The Antarctic is still physically isolated, but we were quite cut off with regard to communication. Because back then—and we’re talking about the days of telex, a very slow and cumbersome form of communication—messages had to be practical, to do with issues on base. We were only allowed to send out 100 words of personal news every month and receive 100 words back each month.
Today, most of the bases have email, so you can pretty much send as much text as you want. I think that would be too much communication for me. Because the problem is that the really good emails would tend to make me long for home, and the really depressing news from ‘the real world’ would make me sad because there’s nothing you can do because you are isolated.
I think if you can’t physically get back, then you’re actually better if you mentally can’t get back there either. But this is an oldie speaking, not a digital native!
AB: You first started filmmaking in Antarctica, how did you get into it?
DA: I became very interested in photography during my first three winters, but then at the end of my third winter, we had a film crew come on the base, including David Attenborough. They were there for just a day, and through that day, I helped them around the island and took their cameraman underwater.
It was while talking to them that I realized that there was this job called a wildlife cameraman that checked all the boxes I was enjoying—diving, travel, animals, excitement, worthwhile cause. That’s where the germ started. That’s where I thought that I should consider shooting movies rather than stills.
So I decided I would take a movie camera down on my next winter in Antarctica. Before I ...
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