Diane Parkes speaks to a environmental film-maker about close encounters with inquisitive bears and a walrus – and the pressing need to protect a precious ecosystem from global warming.
As a researcher, photographer and cameraman who has worked in the Arctic and Antarctic for more than 30 years, Doug Allan is well placed to discuss the environmental damage to the Poles.
And he is hoping that Polar, a film and music production being performed at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall this month, will help inspire people to take action to protect these precious ecosystems.
Footage taken by Doug and a team of wildlife film-makers will be shown in high definition on a 32ft screen at the venue accompanied by live music.
On screen the audience will be watching immense frozen landscapes, aquamarine icebergs, melting ice caps and the diversity of wildlife in these extremes – polar bears, whales, seals, penguins and other Polar birds.
A score arranged by conductor and orchestrator John Harle and played by City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will feature music by Mozart, Stravinsky, Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Bach and Beethoven.
And Doug hopes the performance will not just be enjoyable – but also inspiring.
“I really like the whole concept,” says Doug, who first visited the Antarctic in 1976 when he worked as a research diver for the British Antarctic Survey. “And I hope that people who go to the performances are inspired to want to know more about the polar regions and to want to take action to save them and these wonderful creatures.
“The Arctic and the Antarctic are such incredibly special places that we need to do all we can for them.”
Moving on from researcher to photographer and cameraman, Doug has returned to the Poles countless times. An expert in stills and film footage, he is particularly renowned for his underwater images and has won a string of awards.
He has also filmed for many of the BBC’s nature blockbusters including Planet Earth, The Blue Planet and the current series The Frozen Planet.
And, over the years, he has seen for himself the impact of global warming.
“The results of climate change have been recorded in both the North and South Poles,” he says. “For example when I first went to the North of Baffin Island in the Arctic the weather was predictable. In April, May and June time you got eight to ten days of calmish blue sky followed by a blow and then it would be calm again.
“But today when you go there is no longer this systematic weather system, it is much less predictable.
“In Antarctica you can see how the colonies of penguins have changed. There was a penguin colony that we filmed for Life in the Freezer in 1993 and I went back there for Frozen Planet and it had reduced by about 20 per cent.
“And, as the land changes, colonies become displaced and move to other parts, sometimes displacing other, smaller penguins. That could be a problem for penguins such as the Adelies.
“There are bases on Antarctica where they have been recording the temperatures over periods of time and they have the evidence that the climate is changing. For example at the American base Palmer they have shown that temperatures have increased by about five degrees since 1963.
“That is a huge change. If you are looking at a change from minus five to plus one then that will be serious melting.
‘‘And that affects everything.”
Despite these changes Doug still has a deep love for the poles.
“I first went there at a time in my life when everything was an adventure and it made such a huge impact on me,” he says.
“Although it has become increasingly accessible, it is still one of the world’s biggest wildernesses.
“And for a film-maker it poses so many challenges that there is a huge satisfaction in being able to work in that difficult environment and be able to capture some great pictures.”
Many of those challenges are linked to the fact that it is just so cold.
“When you get to temperatures of below 30 or 40 degrees then simply going out of the tent and filming for ten hours is a challenge,” says Scot Doug.
“It is literally like going out into a deep freeze and you need to be aware of all the practical things, like your tins of food will freeze solid and the camera cables will become brittle and more liable to break.
“It helps when you have experience and know the field craft. All that basic survival stuff becomes second nature and that is how you stay safe. You get to know the narrow line between being very cold and being frostbitten. Although it is a very thin line, it is still a line.
“I have never had frostbite although I have had the milder form, frost nip, when there are changes to your surface circulation. It has affected my fingertips and my cheeks two or three times. It heals but it does leave those areas a bit more sensitive.”
And there are other risks, not least from land’s biggest predator, the polar bear.
“Polar bears have a huge influence on the Arctic,” says Doug. “Because there aren’t any polar bears in the Antarctic you tend to find that the creatures there are less wary. So you can walk around by penguins and they don’t tend to be afraid of you.
“But in the Arctic everything is wary of the polar bears. You always need to be on your guard as they could be anywhere. The Inuit have a great saying ‘it isn’t the polar bear you can see that you want to worry about’.
“Of all the animals I have ever worked with I value the relationship I have had with polar bears the most. By relationship I mean that interaction when you are both aware of each other. It is a bit like being in a bar when you see someone and you acknowledge they are there but you carry on with what you are doing.
“Polar bears are the animals that just completely symbolise and epitomise that environment.”
And these hulking giants like nothing more than a nose around any film-makers’ equipment.
“You know that bit of film in Planet Earth where the polar bear comes up to the window?” says Doug.
“Well that was actually the fourth bear we had had at that window. We always chased them away but we said ‘the next one that comes along we need to pause long enough to film it so people can see’.
“We didn’t feel scared by it coming up to the hut because we knew we could scare them off. Our main worry was for the window. We only had two windows in that hut and if it pressed against one it could break it. We were in the middle of nowhere and had no other glass around so if it was broken we would have to board it up and that would make it all dark and gloomy in there.
“So we just allowed that one to come up close enough for us to film it and then we kept it well away.”
But Doug has not always been so lucky when it comes to escaping marauding wildlife. And his closest encounter came underwater.
“I was in the Canadian Arctic and I was snorkelling to film guillemots diving,” he recalls. “They were bunching together and diving for food and I was getting some really good shots.
“I was treading water, kind of standing up half in and half out of the water, when suddenly something had me round the thighs. It was really tight. I looked down and there was a walrus. It wasn’t a really big one but it had grabbed me.
“I literally hit it on the head and, when I punched it, it backed off a couple of metres. Luckily I was just by the ice edge so I managed to haul myself up onto it.
“Walrus usually eat mussels but when there is ice it can ice over the feeding grounds and the walrus can’t get to the mussels. So it takes seals off the surface. Seals tend to sleep there and the walrus just comes up under one, takes it down and kills it by crushing its chest with its flippers, or jamming its tusk in or it puts its lips onto its head and literally suck its brains out.
“It makes me go cold every time I think about it. If it hadn’t let go it would have pulled me under and I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
After decades of filming dangerous creatures, Doug says he is still shocked at the incident.
“You always think that if an animal is coming for you, you would have some seconds before its arrival and you might be able to do something to scare it off or escape. But I was taken totally by surprise, I had no idea it was there.”
> Polar is at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on December 21. Details: www.thsh.co.uk/event/polar-2-30pm-