“I’ve been chased by bears elephants and tigers”
The Scottish wildlife presenter talks to No.1 about close encounters with polar bears, living alongside wolves and meeting David Attenbourgh
Igrew up in Mull and during my school years I really mucked around, so by the time I got to 16 I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’d messed up all my choices and hadn’t worked hard so I had no chance of going to university or college.
I decided to take a job in a restaurant over the summer and the owner’s husband was a wildlife cameraman.
I chatted a bit with him about what he did – he needed an assistant and offered me a job. I’d never thought about doing that for a living but I loved being outside and I love wildlife shows – I’d just never thought about the person who made them. I packed in my job and off I went to Sierra Leone in West Africa for 18 months at the age of 17.
While all my friends were at university, going out and enjoying themselves, I was sat in a forest in West Africa.
In some ways it was good that I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into, but it was tough, there wasn’t social networking or email, so I’d write home once a month.
BIG CAT DIARY I spent a few years trying to get enough work and then I managed to get involved with the BBC working on Big Cat Diary. It
was a dream job as I used to watch every episode. We settled on Bella as a name for our leopard and we filmed her in her prime, leopards living in the wild have a tough time, and by the time we finished she was starting to lose her edge. A few years after we finished filming I spotted her in a programme and by then she was on her last legs. I felt really sad – we followed her so intimately for many hours of a day that it was hard to see this animal at the top of her game on her way out.
CLOSE ESCAPE I’ve had a few close encounters. Some of the most frightening have been getting chased by elephants, tigers and bears, all of which were pretty scary.
Sometimes you wouldn’t know they were there then you’d stumble across them and get a real shock. During the filming of The Polar Bear Family & Me was one of the times I worked in what would be classed as real danger as polar bears do see people as food.
Polar bears are not to be messed with, so we decided to use a polar bear proof hide that looked like a big perspex box.
It meant we could observe out on the ice without being in danger. But never did we think that we would have such a close encounter. We had trialled it and the bears had walked by not really bothering with it.
But once I began filming this polar bear became a little bit too interested and headed straight for me.
And whilst the box was designed to withstand a bear attack, the lock on the window had rattled off. The polar bear began systematically trying to get in, she had picked up my scent strongest from the weakest point of the box – the door. To make matters worse the hide was on a sledge and at one point she was pushing it, sliding it across the ice which had huge holes in it! The safety measure was if it got too hairy the rest of the crew were 3oo metres back, but it wasn’t something I’d want to repeat. It was frightening but it was considered and controlled. A few days later a polar bear wandered up to the ship we were using as a base whilst we were filming and stuck her head through the porthole into the kitchen where the chef was making cookies!
There has been one occasion that I thought my time was up – but it didn’t involve a wild animal.
When we were filming the polar bears we were based on a ship in a really exposed part of the Arctic. We ended up right in the middle of a 48-hour storm and there was nowhere to take shelter. These boats are designed to withstand a lot, but when you start hearing things crashing about that aren’t meant to, it’s time to worry as it means the boat is doing something that it hasn’t done before. The boat wasn’t rocking like you would expect, instead it was plummeting downwards with each enormous wave then crashing into each wave. Two days we spent thinking one huge wave was going to eventually sink us. During that point I just kept visualising where the lifeboats were and how we would get them ready. Our field producer was really badly sea-sick so he folded his mattress in half and sat in the cupboard in his room wedged inside his mattress for two days.
LIVING WITH WOLVES One of my favourite jobs was travelling to the Arctic to film Snow Wolf Family And Me.
One thing every wolf knows is that they should be scared of humans as for thousands of years we have hunted them. So in the few places you do still find wolves, they aren’t terrified of humans, but they know to be extremely wary. Whereas when you go to the Arctic there are no people so the wolves don’t know to be wary. That relationship there isn’t based on fear, it’s curiosity.
When we touched down in the helicopter I noticed about 15 metres away this wolf wandering towards us. I absolutely jumped out my skin.
I’ve never had such a big wild animal walk up to us so blasé. We thought maybe it was blind and hadn’t noticed us, but then it very deliberately looked at each one of us. We backed off and it walked round sniffing our equipment and then walked off. I knew then we were onto something really special as it’s not often you go to such a remote part of the world to find an elusive animal and it just walks up to you. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, they would come up and sniff our boots. By the end of the project we were happy to be surrounded by the whole pack and they would go off hunting and leave us with the cubs.
Although wolves have killed people in other places, we didn’t have any concerns.
I was confident that I knew them well enough that they wouldn’t attack us, but that said you could definitely have done things that would have made it happen. Like if we were lying on the ground and looked vulnerable, or happened to make a squeak, or funny noise they completely changed their behaviour. Suddenly the atmosphere would change and you could see them looking at you differently and very intently.
I think eventually they will reintroduce wolves in Scotland, a wolves’ job is to curb deer numbers but also to keep them moving to stop them staying in an area and destroying the vegetation.
Beavers are coming back and we may introduce lynx, so it’s a natural progression towards habitat restoration. We use the land in a very different way than in years gone by, there’s a huge amount of Scotland that’s dedicated to a few species. I’m not against grouse shooting for example, but there’s only a limited amount of people who can afford to do it.
DEDICATION Some people think it would be terrible spending endless days (or nights) just waiting on an animal appearing but I see it a bit like a game.
With each passing day you get closer to uncovering what these animals are doing. The longest stint I had was when we were filming Planet Earth Two –I spent 30 nights waiting and waiting for a sighting of this leopard. Eventually I got the footage I needed and the wait paid off.
MEETING AN IDOL I didn’t think David Attenborough would have a clue who I was.
Then during an interview a journalist mentioned that he had spoken really highly of me. I didn’t want to be immodest and ask ‘What did he say?’. But I was desperate to Google it! I wrote to him and said it would be fantastic to meet up and he wrote straight back saying to
call him as he doesn’t do email. It was really surreal calling David Attenborough! He’s so influential and such a figurehead in this industry. They always say not to meet your idol and I was nervous about meeting him but he didn’t let me down, he lived up to my expectations.
ADJUSTING TO FAMILY LIFE When I’m home I have to switch off this windswept and interesting lifestyle. I love being back with my family, but sometimes I struggle to get used to doing the boring stuff, like going to Morrisons.
I used to have a good tolerance doing the mundane things that you have to do in life but I’ve been spoilt.
I love normality though, I can’t get enough of Saturday night TV – before my last trip I was glued to Britain’s Got Talent and Take Me Out! I think people are surprised I like that type of thing!
In some ways I want a normal life but I suppose my job is my version of normal. I’m not complacent about the opportunities I’ve been given and the places I get to go to. But I’ve been doing it such a long time – the last trip for example I was up in the mountains of Turkey then I flew straight to Australia for 10 days. I really look forward to getting home, I really miss it when I’m away.
I love the job and I’m passionate about it but I also want a normal life, my job is very selfish, I leave my wife Wendy on her own with two kids which is really hard.
My wife didn’t necessarily choose this life but us having kids coincided with when I needed to be really busy and I needed to take every job that came along, but I look at my friends and I realise that having kids in general is really demanding. The most important job I have is being a husband and father and if I had to prioritise they would come first.
Gordon gets a little too close to a Polar Bear
The wolves showed no fear of the film crew during filming of Snow Wolf Family and Me