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Published: Thursday April 17, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday April 17, 2014 MYT 5:05:33 PM

Life in the freezer: Wildlife photographer Doug Allan shares his cool stories

The intrepid cameraman is also the author of Freeze Frame, A Wildlife Cameraman’s Adventures On Ice.

Not many people go to Kong Karls Land, and even fewer return from these Arctic islands way north of Norway because it is a world of polar bears and is strictly off limits to all but the most intrepid or foolhardy.

So when photographer Doug Allan got permission to film sequences there for David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series, he did not expect an easy assignment – it is usually -32°C in April, the wind is vicious and hauling cameras in the deep snow is a nightmare.

After walking five or more hours a day and watching polar bear dens in the snow slopes for 23 days, however, Allan had seen just one mother bear and her cub. By Day 24, he says, he was living “in bear world, at bear speed, with bear senses”.

“We find a new hole and wait. We shuffle, hop, bend, stretch and run to stay warm. Five hours of watching and then with no warning at all I catch a glimpse so brief that I almost miss it. But the camera’s locked on the hole on full zoom and my eye’s very quickly on the viewfinder.

“Nothing for a couple of seconds and then an unmistakable black nose. Nose become muzzle, grows bigger to become full head and in less than a minute she has her front legs out and is resting on the snow in front of the hole. She’s looking at me but she’s not bothered. I’ve just pulled out of a close-up thinking this can’t get much better ... when she sets off on a long slide down the slope,” he recounts, adding that two cubs then appeared at the den entrance. 

“Clearly it’s their first view of the world ... It’s showtime on the slopes and we have front-row seats.”

Capturing extraordinary shots of baby polar bears blinking in the first light of their first day, filming humpback whales catching krill by blowing bubbles, or descending deep below icebergs are all Allan’s speciality. If you want penguins in winter in a blizzard, snow leopards in Ladakh, India, someone to venture into ice caves with or just hang out on an iceflow for several months, TV wildlife producers turn to Allan. 

If you’ve ever been amazed by footage of polar bears, it’s probably been filmed by him. His perfect temperature, he says, is -18°C.

“I just became the cold man. You had coral people, elephant people, chimp people. I was the cold man. Discomfort is part of the business,” he said in London recently on returning from a harrowing four-day crossing of the Ross Sea.

Allan, from Dunfermline in Scotland, trained as a marine biologist and commercial diver, and has been to both poles and spent five winters and eight summers in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey as a diving officer and base commander. Diving was his first passion, where he learned about survival in cold places.

His big break came when a BBC crew with Attenborough turned up at Antarctica in 1981. “He stepped off the chopper and they all wanted a picture of themselves with him. I ended taking the crew to different places, and went out with a cameraman. After 48 hours I realised (being a wildlife cameraman) ticked all the boxes: travel, adventure, underwater.”

Since then he has been a top cameraman on many of the Attenborough series including Blue Planet, Life In The Freezer and Planet Earth, as well as the BBC series Human Planet. “I came along at a good time. When I started, hardly anyone had been to the Antarctic. It was like all these plum sequences were just waiting to be plucked. I just like to get on an animal’s wavelength.”

“My value is field experience in cold conditions. I have a feel for it. I have spent so much time on sea ice it now feels like crossing the street. I do get cold toes but the poles are healthy places. There are no leeches, no diseases or mosquitoes. My place is out in the wild with big animals or underwater. You have to get cold and you can’t hide there,” he says.

Wildlife filming has evolved but Allan has not followed all the trends. He does not “do” wildlife filming on specially constructed sets – the only way that most small wild animals can be filmed. “Wee things are not my scene. It’s much easier to focus on an elephant rather than a pygmy shrew. There’s massive skill in set filming. Below the size of a rabbit you have to think about controlling your subject. In a series such as Hidden Kingdom, just about every shot was in a set. It requires a high level of skill, but it’s not one that I have.”

Working with Attenborough so often, he says, has been a privilege and a pleasure. Allan cannot hide his admiration for his lifetime’s work. The respect is clearly mutual. 

In the foreword to Allan’s book, Attenborough writes: “He is not as other men. He cheerfully endures conditions more uncomfortable and for longer periods than anyone I know. He has an uncanny understanding of animals. That tells him what the animal is about to do before he does it. He is a wonderful companion.”

Once, he says, he was attacked by a massive walrus. “It was totally scary. I was snorkelling and something grabbed my waist. I hit it on the head with my camera. They crush people with their flippers and squeeze the hell out of you or they put their lips on seals’ heads and suck out their brains.”

Now he would like to make his own film about climate change in the Arctic, talking to the Inuit people who live there and experience it first hand. Because he is trusted by them, he says he would be able to make an extraordinary documentary.

To work with people in the Arctic, he says, needs a different kind of patience. “Patience is sitting, waiting and watching for days in the blowing snow. Wildlife filming, on the other hand, is sitting, waiting and watching for days in the blowing snow but at least you are being paid for it.” – Guardian News & Media

> Doug Allan is the author of ‘Freeze Frame, A Wildlife Cameraman’s Adventures On Ice’.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, doug allan, polar bears

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