Behind the Lens: An Interview with Doug Allan

Doug Allan is one of the world’s most respected and experienced wildlife and natural history cameramen. Ahead of his interview at The Luxury Travel Fair 2015, we met up with the man himself to ask him a few questions about the highlights of his incredible career in travel.

In your 25 years of experience what is the most exciting thing you have captured on camera?

For sheer adrenaline, it would be hard to beat the occasion in the Antarctic when a three meter 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.

At the other pole, in the Arctic, I found a different kind of excitement. A more super glowing satisfaction kind of feeling. A Bowhead whale was swimming in this crack in the ice, maybe 50m wide. I slipped in, gin clear water, looked down and there way below me was a big dark shape. I followed it with the video camera, back and forth during a couple of passes, but it was so far down and so dim that I held little hope for the footage. But when I cranked up the brightness of the pictures later, I realised the whale was feeding – its mouth was wide open, baleen plates fully exposed. That was in 1994 and those shots still keep being sold by National Geographic. They’re just the best around of a baleen whale filter feeding. The water’s clear whereas usually it’s pea soup for them to feed in that way.

Doug Allen

Is there something that you really want to film/photograph but haven’t had the chance to yet?

The narwhal is a small whale about 6m long that lives in the Arctic. But the males have a single tusk that can be 3m long coming out of the front of their head. Underwater unicorns. Give me 30 minutes underwater in the company of a tusked male and I’d be a truly happy man. It’s a hell of a challenge, because they just seem to be one of these animals where they’re all – well the males at least – very very wary. I’ve glimpsed them out on the limits of visibility, cruising past, checking me out, but always just a vague shadowy shape, impossible to film. But somewhere out there there’s a friendly one, it’s just a matter of spending time in the water.

What have you been busy with lately? What is next for you?

I don’t have anything specific in the pipeline right now, having just had a very busy five months. I’ve been on shoots in Chagos in the Indian Ocean working with scientists looking at the effects of climate change on the coral reefs, then Newfoundland (twice) filming under icebergs for a new Brian Cox series coming out next year, and then with the Living Oceans Foundation doing part of a film about overfishing. A quick trip to Scotland trying for seals underwater, a longer one to South Africa working with Monty Halls and a shark tagging team, to Svalbard in the Arctic as the ice broke up looking for polar bears, and finally, best of all, to Iceland where I dived a spectacular undersea vent, that rose up from the sea floor at 80m depth like a giant tapering pillar, with boiling hot water shimmering out of cracks on its flanks. Truly unworldly!

Next? Well 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. But as you can imagine – it’s a hard sell!

You have spent multiple winters and summers on both poles.  Tell us about your biggest scare.

I was grabbed by a walrus while I was snorkeling off the ice edge in the Canadian Arctic. He came up from right below me without warning, hugged my thighs with his flippers just as they do when catching seals in the same way. I looked down, hit his head with my fist, he let go and I swam back to the solid ice. Took less time to happen than it has done for you to read this. Now if he’d held on and taken me down …… well no more Doug I guess. I was especially interested in what my Inuit guides told me afterwards – that the usual way the walrus actually kills the seal is by putting its lips against the seal’s head, and basically sucking its brains out.

It’s true that as wildlife film makers, we do face situations when animals are potentially dangerous. White sharks in the water, wolf packs on the tundra, that sort of thing. But experience and a ‘feel’ for the animal will often let you know when it’s ok to approach, and when it’s time to back off.

Doug Allen Filming Humpback Whale