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A life spent recording nature

Wednesday, 5th June, 2019 4:48pm

Ahead of his highly anticipated appearance at Seafest this weekend, nature photographer and camera operator Doug Allan spoke to the Cork independent about his career, working with David Attenborough and the climate crisis.

Although widely recognised for his work in polar regions and underwater, photography wasn’t his first love.

“My first passion was actually diving, which I started at school. That led to a marine biology degree, but on graduating in 1973, I decided I didn’t want to be in what I termed ‘science at the sharp end’ so I cut loose and simply looked for excuses to dive.

“Two years later I read an article in a dive mag written by someone who’d just been a scientific diver in the Antarctic. I tracked down the address for the British Antarctic Survey, applied to them and in 1976 was heading south to one of their research bases on a year’s contract as a diver. Best move I ever made! It was when I was down south that I really became passionate about nature photography - all those penguins and seals and the weird animals under the ice.

“I followed up the first contract with a second, and it was while in Antarctica in 1981 that I met David Attenborough, when a film crew came on base to film for ‘Living Planet’. They were impressed with my stills and it was as I helped them and spoke with them that I realised that wildlife filming was a job that simply encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed - diving, photography, wildlife. I guess you could say the rest is history…”

Doug has had many exhilarating experiences over the course of his career, including nearly losing his camera to a leopard seal!

“For sheer adrenaline, it would 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 of the 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 able to focus on its tonsils. It held that position for about five seconds, then opened its jaws and swam off.”

Having worked with David Attenborough on a number of projects such as ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Frozen Planet’, Doug is full of praise for the renowned natural historian and broadcaster.

“David is always right in there to offer help with carrying gear, setting up camp, anything at all. But he does have a wicked sense of fun and an amazing memory so there’s never any shortage of stories from him. But most of all, I admire him for his utterly genuine generosity of spirit towards other people. No matter who he meets, he’s unfailingly polite and kind.

“We did a sequence in Svalbard on Arctic foxes for ‘Life of Mammals’ that involved a lot of searching using skidoos. I wanted a shot of him driving, I needed a big wide from low (shot) on the ice of him zooming by. We did several takes, me urging him to pass ever closer. At one point he shouted over: ‘No more, that’s a near as I’ll drive to you. Too much paperwork if I run you over!’”

Through his work Doug has experienced first hand the effects of the climate crisis on the environment and animal populations.

“It’s been a massive – albeit frightening – privilege. The Arctic especially is under threat; lose the ice and it’s like chopping down a rainforest, you ain’t gonna find the same animals afterwards as lived there before. So I do feel it’s the responsibility of all ‘nat hist’ people to use our talents to make films that in some way shift the needle.”

Such issues are at the top of the list for upcoming projects.

“I’d really like to tell the story of climate change in the Arctic, make a film about what’s happening up there and what the future holds for polar bears and other animals. It’s never been more important to make that film.”

For now Doug is looking forward to speaking at Seafest, where he’ll be doing four different presentations each day, two of which aimed at children, giving a behind the scenes insight into his work, the places he’s visited and animals photographed.

“I do enjoy talking to live audiences, it’s a real buzz stepping out there in front of them for the first time. A great chance to meet face to face with people, and answer their questions.”

Doug Allen will hold talks across the weekend at the Marine Institute Atlantic Theatre at Seafest, Port of Cork. For more, see seafest.ie.

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