The predator becomes our prey

Polar bears adapt their hunting methods to different times of year, but the ice is melting earlier and earlier every year. (Gregoire Bouguereau)

Polar bears adapt their hunting methods to different times of year, but the ice is melting earlier and earlier every year. (Gregoire Bouguereau)

Alastair Fothergill, executive producer of The Hunt, is well known for his previous work in nature documentary, which includes Frozen Planet and the prize-winning Blue Planet for the BBC, as well as African Cats for Disneynature.

The Hunt returns to polar bears, as in Frozen Planet, doesn’t it?

Yes. Svalbard is the most wonderful place with the highest density of polar bears in the whole world, and we work there a lot. After Frozen Planet it was a real challenge to raise the bar with polar bears.

We knew we had to have a polar episode because it’s really interesting [to see] the seasonal change in the poles. The polar bear is the only predator that, over a four-month period, completely changes its hunting technique.

But to get the aquatic stalk was extremely hard, because it takes place in melting and moving ice, which means you have to have a small icebreaker. You have to develop a system to move the camera alongside the polar bear, which we did. On top of that, we got the melt-water stalk earlier in the season, and then, finally, an amazing surprise – the polar bear was 300m up a cliff trying to steal eggs. This is one of those stories that some Norwegians talk about, but it had never been filmed, so that was an amazing bonus.

Do different species make alliances to fight the predators?

There are certainly predators that work together. When they organise hunts, there are often predators that will follow other predators. Hyenas traditionally follow lions and there are those sorts of relationships.

Of prey defending themselves, there’s the monkeys. We’ve got an amazing sequence of chimps co-operating to hunt monkeys. They hunt four or five different species of monkeys, and scientists have proven that the monkeys can hear each other’s calls, and they call to each other. Some are better at observing, and they work together to keep an eye out for the predator.

Certain birds do it; some will work together. The question is: Is it organised? Certainly, in India, the way you find a tiger in the forest is you hear all the other animals raising the alarm. As the tiger gets closer to you, the wall of sound gets louder and, undoubtedly, they all hear each other as well. Whether it’s a co-operative, organised relationship is another question.

What behaviour was most impressive for you?                                

Our German cameraman was talking about filming the meltwater stalk, where the ice is melting and you get these holes in the ice. So, in order for the polar bear to get close to its prey, it goes under the ice and pops up. But the problem is that when it goes under the ice it loses its direction and doesn’t know where it is. As they were filming it, the polar bear was 30m away, and then it suddenly pops up about 150m away. The poor polar bear keeps getting it wrong, and it’s a very funny sequence.

In the end, the seal gets away and then they [the camera team] are left on the ice with a melt hole beside them. They started thinking that there’s absolutely nothing to stop that polar bear from coming up into that melt hole.

But we work with a very experienced Norwegian crew, who’ve spent their lives in Svalbard. You have to be able to read the ice. I would never ever go anywhere on the ice without these guys, because they know, and it can be very, very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

A few years ago, a British lad was attacked and killed by a polar bear. Did that make you hesitant at all?

That was a very unfortunate incident. We all take the precautions of carrying rifles, though we never use them; we have all the professional things. The support staff in Svalbard are extraordinarily well organised and they have amazing helicopters. It’s a very good place to work.

And the polar bears are nowhere near as dangerous as the ice. When we were filming a polar bear, one of the snow machines, the Ski-Doo, went into a hole. It was connected to a platform behind, a sort of sledge where the camera gear was. And [the cameraman] was basically about to lose the camera gear, so he had to cut the tie and we lost the Ski-Doo. But there was no question – we’re not going to lose our camera gear.

That guy we were working with was an amazing Swede who has actually walked and kayaked from the North Pole to Svalbard. That is the calibre of people we’re fortunate enough to work with.

To what extent have you seen climate change affecting the environment?

The seventh episode of this series has a conservation angle. What’s interesting about the top predators is that, because they are the top of the food chain, they’re a very good litmus test for the health of the habitat beneath them.

If you look at harpy eagles, the biggest bird of prey in South America, the quality of the rainforest is reflected in how the harpy eagle is doing. There is a powerful sequence about Canadian biologists who have been studying polar bears in Hudson Bay, capturing them for the longest period of 30 years. They keep catching and weighing the same bears, and they said that clearly the weight of the bears is now about 10% to 15% less than it was in the 1980s. That’s definitely indicative.

And if you go to the poles, you can see glaciers that are smaller than they were; you can see the ice in Svalbard melting earlier every year. Anybody who tries to deny climate change should get out there and see it because it’s definitely happening.

The cardinal rule for wildlife filmmakers is never to interfere. Have there been any instances where there was near or accidental interference?

No. When you’re filming hunts, it is tough, actually. There are moments when there is no doubt that you don’t want to see stuff that you see, but that’s one of the key challenges of the series.

Traditional films about predators were always about them being “red in tooth and claw” – they were always the villains. Here you hardly even see a kill in the whole of this series, and when you do it’s very momentarily and very carefully edited so that people don’t really see much, partly because we know people don’t like it, but also because that indicates the story is over. Once they’ve caught, you know they’re going to eat. We never interfered, either deliberately or by mistake. It’s almost the first rule of wildlife filmmaking, although it can at times be hard to sit back and watch nature take its course.

What is your greatest challenge creating a show like this?

Often you’ll go on a six-week shoot and you might not even film anything until the last week. You have to get to know the animals, under the skin, and no matter how much time you spend researching and talking to scientists, when you turn up there it’s never the same.

I think it’s that persistence and keeping everybody going, that’s my hardest challenge.

If there was one animal that you wouldn’t wish your worst enemy to be, which would it be?

A bottom-feeding sea cucumber that lives at the bottom of the deep ocean, under great pressure, eating sand.

The Hunt begins on BBC Earth (DStv Channel 184) on January 10 at 4pm.

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