Into the deep: Exploring climate change through a camera lens

Doug Allan: 'Even on  holiday I want to dive and take pictures'
Doug Allan: 'Even on holiday I want to dive and take pictures'
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CAMERAMAN Doug Allan has viewed the effects of climate change on the planet in a series of underwater adventures.

There isn’t much that nature can chuck at veteran cameraman Doug Allan any more which is guaranteed to leave him utterly petrified. After all, this is a man who has wrestled his way out of almost certain death by walrus, punching the pesky critter on the nose after it mistook him for a seal, moments before it could engage its usual method of killing by sucking its victim’s brains out.

In a career that’s taken him all around the globe filming for the likes of Planet Earth, The Blue Planet and Life in the Freezer, Doug’s dodged irritated and hungry polar bears, endured ridiculous freezing temperatures, plunged into frozen seas and stepped gingerly across icy ladders set horizontally over deep crevasses halfway up Everest.

As the man behind the lens, whose striking camerawork has provided the images for Sir David Attenborough’s words, Doug has seen it, done it and captured it all on film for us to see, too.

Yet even he could only watch in sheer horror a few weeks ago when Mother Nature, crippled and broken by climate change, turned one of her most frightening faces to his camera.

Doug was in Greenland filming for a BBC Scotland programme to be screened later this year. The plan was to capture scientists at work, to record spectacular scenes of glaciers as they groaned, shifted and melted under the warmer summer sun and to follow the fortunes of the region’s polar bears.

“We were at Store Glacier, one of the most active glaciers in the world,” recalls Doug. “Bits were flying off it every day. It’s a million-tonne iceberg and when tonnes of ice drop off, it’s one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen in my life.”

The team of scientists were busy beside the glacier when the ice suddenly snapped, sending a massive chunk the size of a large building crashing to the water below. The process, known as calving, not only poses an enormous risk from falling ice, but churns the sea into a massive and unpredictable swell as it plunges into the water.

“One bit just came right off,” 
shivers Doug. “It was utter mayhem in the area immediately in front of where we were. On one hand it’s very exciting but it’s also very frightening.”

The expedition brought into sharp focus how rapidly the fragile balance of the frozen north is being altered by our changing world.

“Climate change is affecting the Arctic quicker than any other part of the planet,” he says. “This glacier study has been going on for a number of years, the scientists have been measuring how much ice is being lost or produced every year. They also have 
satellites up in space to help them measure the thickness of the ice, and they are finding the ice is much thinner than they thought.

“Go back ten years, there was talk of an ice-free summer in the Arctic at some point in the next 50 years. Now they are predicting it will happen within the next five years. That is really frightening.”

What he’s seen with his own eyes is backed up by news earlier this week from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in the US, which revealed sea ice in the Arctic has dropped to its lowest level, with several weeks of summer still to come. The centre’s findings are said to be among the strongest signs yet of global warming, with one spokesman there describing the once solid ice of the Arctic now more like “crushed ice . . . a giant slushie”.

Dunfermline-born Doug has seen for himself the planet change over decades spent filming fascinating scenes of marine life under water, from the roof of the planet in the Arctic and its basement in Antarctica, up its highest peak and far under its frozen seas.

While his images of polar bears wrestling, penguins diving and snow leopards in the Himalayas – he waited seven boring weeks for one very brief snatch of the elusive creature – left television viewers spellbound, they have also been vital in helping scientists understand nature and gauge man’s 
relentless impact on Mother Earth.

“I’m just back from the Red Sea – a busman’s holiday. Even when I’m on holiday I want to dive and take pictures,” he says, pausing in the underwater tunnel at Deep Sea World in North Queensferry to watch sharks glide overhead. “I was there in 1974 and there were heaps of big sharks. This time I didn’t see them. They’ve been pretty much wiped out and that makes me quite sad.

“I go to the Canadian Arctic where summer used to be fantastic long periods of stable sunshine. Now you don’t know what you’ll get – it could be windy, rainy, the sea ice breaks up earlier than it used to and the old patterns of animal behaviour are not the same.

“There’s a feeling that the old world is disappearing. It’s very hard to predict exactly how things will be.

“People who film in Africa say the same. Twenty-five years ago there weren’t all these people on safari trips. Now there are more people on the move, there’s not a single airport that hasn’t expanded.”

Of course, some may have been inspired to venture to the furthest flung territories of the planet by the dazzling images captured by Doug’s own camera. But behind each image is often long hours spent waiting, the physical torture of climbing icy peaks or diving into frozen water, or the horrors of camping out on a frozen sheet of ice for weeks waiting to film narwhals and belugas only to wake one morning and find dark water lapping towards the tents, the ice shattered and no immediate way of escape.

Yet Doug almost stumbled into all of this by chance, with a marine biology degree under his belt, he was a respected scientist before getting his first steer in the documentary-making industry in the 1970s from the main man himself.

“I was standing on the edge of the sea ice in Antarctica looking down at the black water,” writes Sir David Attenborough in the foreword to Doug’s stunning book of photographs, Freeze Frame. “A head materialised many feet down, slowly rose, surrounded by bubbles and broke the surface. It was Doug.”

Face to face with the master, Doug casually removed his breathing apparatus mouthpiece and asked Sir David for a bit of advice on how to get involved in making nature documentaries.

Now 61, he shows no sign of letting up. Having produced his book, he’s now days away from taking a wealthy client on a private diving expedition to Antarctica and then back to the UK for an extensive lecture tour that will take in Dunfermline and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre in November.

His role behind the lens is also far from done. On one hand he wants to keep going to help raise awareness among us all of Earth’s climate crisis, on the other to help scientists unravel the mysteries of nature.

It is though, he groans, a double-edged sword. For each beautiful image has the potential to bring an increasingly fragile planet closer the edge.

“I get to go around the world shooting its beauty,” he says, “and it used to be enough for people to see it and appreciate it. Now everyone wants to go and see it, too, so airports are built and hotels spring up.

“I suppose if you want to preserve the best of the world, keep it a secret and don’t make a television programme about it.”

• Freeze Frame costs £25. For more details, go to Doug Allan will appear at the Royal Lyceum Theatre on November 12.

• Doug was photographed at Deep Sea World, North Queensferry. For entry details, visit

DODGING the unpredictable chaos of a glacier as it sheds hundreds of tonnes of ice into the sea is all in a day’s work for Doug Allan.

During his career he’s come face to face with a polar bear and her two cubs emerging from their den in the Norwegian Arctic, a shot for Planet Earth that Sir David Attenborough once said was his favourite film clip of all time.

His work on Frozen Planet led to him capturing what he called the “Antarctic holy grail”, a shot of a pod of orcas working together to kill a seal.

He travelled to Tonga with then wife Sue Flood to film 50ft-long humpback whales giving birth – and watched horrified as a calf whipped her with a tale. As she struggled in pain, she dropped her £15,000 camera, leaving Doug with the choice of whether to attend to her or grab the disappearing equipment. Convinced she would be alright, he grabbed the camera.

His most terrifying brush with death was as he swam in the Canadian Arctic, taking pictures of diving guillemots. Without warning, a walrus grasped him in a deathly embrace – a clasp normally performed on its seal prey. Doug managed to draw back his hand and rap it on the head, taking it by surprise so it let go.