Hi Reddit, My name is Lindsay McCrae and in 2016, I received some great news. I’d been offered the job of a lifetime: filming a colony of 8,000 emperor penguins in Antarctica as part of a small team working on David Attenborough’s new BBC series Dynasties.
The area we filmed in was so isolated, we were locked in for 11 months, with no way for people to get in, or out. The time away from home meant I even missed the birth of my son. Aside from our team of three, the closest other human was on another base hundreds of miles away.
Watch the trailer for this week's episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUGevSUtslM
Watch the first episode FREE here
EDIT Thank you for all your questions, Reddit! See you next time!
Did you have any scary situations arise? I imagine it could be a bit nerve wracking being so far from anything.
Yeah, definitely. Day in day out, even in good weather you’re filming in potentially the most dangerous place on Earth 'cause weather can change so quickly. Even though we were close to a great big scientific research center, 7km is still quite a long way.
Probably the scariest times were filming the birds in the storm. We filmed for as long as possible and then we decided we just had to start our journey back otherwise we probably wouldn’t get back, the weather was deteriorating so fast. That journey that would take 20 minutes would take just under 3 hours and it would be a case of staring at the GPS unit on the front of the skidoo cause you couldn’t see an arm’s length in front of you and you had to make sure you were driving on the line the GPS was telling you to.
On one occasion, the crew, the three of us, got separated. We were all following our own GPSes but obviously were staying together. I waited about 15 minutes and eventually turned back and they were only about 10 metres behind me. They’d stopped to get some ice out of their goggles. But you don’t know whether they’ve gone past you or whether you’re to wait a bit longer. Fortunately, we found each other again, we carried on. But I only realized we’d gotten back to the station when I drove into it. I was looking at my GPS and it said we’d arrived but because the visibility is so bad, I just couldn’t see the station and I just drove into the side of it.
That was probably the scariest moment, but everyday things can go wrong so quickly down there and you do have to remind yourself that there is no help.
What aspect of your day to day life in such a cold and barren area of our planet surprised you the most? Did it take time to adjust back to your 'normal' life when you returned from Antarctica?
Probably dressing in the morning which would take me about 20 minutes. I’d end up wearing so many layers that it was quite tricky to move inside. Obviously once you went outside, every part of skin apart from my eyes was covered. It was quite restricting, and sometimes you didn’t feel like you could breathe.
In regard to adjusting to being back home, I was quite worried about this because obviously I had spent so long with the same people and seen no one else. I hadn’t seen any trees or any cars. I was a bit concerned what I’d be like, because a lot of people have changed having spent that much time in Antarctica but I came back to a baby boy, so I didn’t have time to adjust to my old life–it was a new life. Coming home there was no issue whatsoever. I was just thrown into the deep end and I just had to carry on. I didn’t notice any change in myself. Obviously my life had changed, but I hadn’t, I felt.
Well done!! It was one of my favorites. Thank you so much for being part of that.
How did you cope with the isolation and living in that weather for that long?
Did you find the hollow earth entrance!? Aliens.
No, to the second part.
Before going, I was very worried about that aspect. I thought it might be the biggest thing I’d struggle with going down there - not being able to talk to people or see them. But nowadays having internet access, I didn’t feel like i was a million miles away, thankfully I was on the same timezone as home so I could talk to them whenever I wanted.
10-15 years ago I’d have really struggled, but we had it quite comfortable with that research station and the facilities it provided. Because of that it kept morale high and allowed us to go out everyday and go out and film everyday, so having all those luxuries allowed us to make the film in the end.
Hi Lindsay! What an opportunity! My question is: How loud are 8000 Emperor Penguins? Did you get used to it after a while?
I definitely got used to it. They are different volumes at different times of the year. When they first form their colony it’s very loud because you’ve got lots of females and lots of males all looking for mates. When the females leave, the males have no reason to call so it’s almost silent around the colonies. You’ve got 4,000 birds all tightly huddled together but because they’re saving as much energy as possible, they don’t call. During that period, it was silent.
When the chicks hatch, and the females start returning, it’s deafening! You’ve got chicks calling for food, females looking for their mates, males calling out to try to find the females. Very quickly it goes from a silent huddle of males saving energy to an absolute mass of females, males, and chicks all calling at the same time.
The Dynasties series has been an absolute wonder to watch, thanks for doing what you do to make it possible for us all to see the intimate details of the lives of these beautiful animals.
What do you think is something that the public perhaps misunderstands about emperor penguins?
I’m not sure they misunderstand it, but it’s difficult to express how strong the bond is between a couple. They pair up anew each season, but when they do that, the bond is so strong. It was pretty special being there to see that. The female when she lays the egg and leaves the male, it’s clear she doesn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave him on his own. The first time we filmed that, obviously I’m looking down the viewfinder of a camera trying to do my job, so I don’t think I really appreciated as much as I would have without a camera.
That first one I’d filmed, I had to sit back and remind myself what I’d just seen. It was very human-like the way she’d look back, then she’d leave and come back, leave and come back.
When she returns and sees her chick for the first time, they’re obviously incredibly happy and they’re calling away. The bond is clear but it’s hard to describe how strong it is.
When the penguins were trapped in the ravine the crew made the decision to intervene and dig them a path to safety.
What was that discussion like amongst the crew? Was it unanimous decision or were some of the team advocating against intervening? How did you decide what to do?
No, it was a completely joint decision. We talked about it a lot, but it was a no-brainer. We couldn’t walk away from it knowing we hadn’t done anything, so all of us decided after a couple of days we couldn’t not do anything about it. Where they were in this ravine, all we could do was dig a shallow ramp into this ravine, we couldn’t directly help the birds, but we could give them an option to help themselves which thankfully is what they did.
How was the night sky?
Ohhh, incredible. Probably the best I’ve ever seen. There’s obviously no light pollution down there. When there’s no cloud, it’s crystal clear and when you’ve got a bit of moon, it’s incredibly bright because you’ve got all this snow and ice which it reflects off. Walking around at night under a big moon was incredible.
We did spend a lot of time with the birds under full moons and clear skies because during the winter, we wanted to emphasize how much of their time is in the dark. And it’s during the winter on those long dark nights that you see the aurora. That was phenomenal. The first one aurora down there was the fourth or fifth I’d ever seen and you’re in the best place on the planet to see it. That was very cool. It happened most evenings, but you don’t have that many clear night skies to be able to see it so that was the frustrating side of it.
Are the script for shows like this decided before shooting, or do you randomly shoot and then figure out the stories? How much flexibility is involved?
Well we knew the main life cycle of emperor penguins and that was the main strand of the whole story, but as with any aspect of wildlife, you can’t predict what's going to happen, so we knew we needed egg-laying and hatching.
There are certain aspects - like when the penguins got stuck in the ravine that ended up being a huge part of the story - the kidnapping, the snowball egg. They’re small moments that bring the story to life, but haven’t been seen before, and you can’t predict those are going to happen.
How did you get started in your career as a nature / wildlife camera man?
Do you have any advice for people just starting out?
I grew up in the rural English countryside and was fascinated by wildlife, not necessarily cameras. I wrote to the BBC as a 12/13 year old and they came and made a film about me as a child and that’s what I wanted to do as a career. Fortunately I met the right people at the right time and got a job as soon as I left school.
For people wanting to get into the industry, I am where I am now because of what I know about wildlife - I’ve got no camera training and skills. I’d focus on your subject and move into camera work afterwards.
Hi Lindsay. Dynasties was really special.
How easy/difficult is it to distinguish a specific penguin from that lot?
Impossible. They all look the same–Males and females. So the majority of the time, no, you couldn’t identify an individual, plus there were 8000 of them so the chances of seeing one individual twice were quite slim.
We did see one black penguin, that looked quite different from the rest of them so we were able to identify it, and we saw that penguin about three times in total.
Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge. How do you keep the cameras and everything from freezing? What camera/s do you use? What is the first food you wanted when came back to the unfrozen world? Thanks!
Thankfully, the cameras that we took put up with the cold. They were remarkably good in those sorts of temperatures so fortunately we didn’t have any problems with cameras getting too cold. It was just batteries we needed to look after.
We did have to be careful to not bring the cameras inside too quickly because we were keeping them at -40, -50 degree outside and the last thing you wanted to do was bring them inside to 20, 30 degrees in a couple of minutes because you’d smash everything. The cameras lived outside, I only brought them in maybe twice or three times to make sure they were alright.
The food I wanted when I was left was just fresh fruit and fresh vegetables because I’d not had anything fresh for so long. I had a massive salad when I got to South Africa and instructed home to stock up on vegetables for when I got back.
What did you guys eat while out there?
Thanks and stay safe.
During the Summer, planes come and go–so you get fresh food delivered.
When the last plane leaves at the end of February, you run out of fresh food and rely on tinned and frozen food. We did have a chef preparing food for us on the station.
We ate a lot of cheese, and bread and pasta!
We did have a full English breakfast every Sunday which was quite nice.
The food was quite nice - they’ve got an enormous freezer full of about 60 tonnes of food. The food was good and fortunately we didn’t have to cook it.
That's sick, what was it like living Antarctica in terms of social isolation, lack of warm weather and sun etc - was it easy to feel down / get depressed due to the conditions or are there steps everyone takes to combat that?
Mentally there are some tough days where you’ve been stuck inside, and you just want to go home. When you’ve not got the sun for 2 months in the middle of winter, you can get quite depressed. Fortunately I managed kept myself so busy that I didn’t really have time to think about home in that way. There were always things to be doing whether we were out filming, or at the station building kit, or fixing kit. There were always things to keep me busy.
The sun disappearing for 2 months however did really play havoc with my sleep pattern. For two months we didn’t have any sun and I’d just not be able to sleep which was very frustrating. You’d go outside for as long as you could and it was just energy-sapping and you wanted some rest but your body just wouldn’t let you have rest. The lack of sun was really the only thing that affected me.
Fortunately I didn’t really have too much time to worry about home when we were busy.
Did you enjoy your time there?
How often did you miss going back home?
What was the longest you've moved out for filming?
What fact would you want to share with those not watching the documentary about the penguins?
Yeah, absolutely. It was I think the best experience filming I’ll ever have. I don’t think I’ll be able to top a year in Antarctica. In the wildlife filming industry, it’s the furthest away from home you can get, the conditions are the worst they can get and you’ll be away for the longest you could ever be away for.
This was the longest. Usually trips are only about 5-6 weeks long, but to film through the Antarctic winter, for 8 months of the year there are planes and boats, so you just have to stay. So 11 months is the longest I’ve been away in one go.
Oh blimey! Probably the length that the males go without food. They arrive in March time, and the last meal they eat is to the middle/end of March. They don’t eat anything else under the middle of July. Probably 100 days the males don’t eat anything, probably about a third of a year. I think that’s pretty amazing.
How do the penguins react when they see you?
They’re incredibly inquisitive. Most of them have probably never seen a human being before. Every day when we get down to the colony, a good number walk over to us. Every day about 3-4 would walk over and lay next to you. They enjoyed the company! Very inquisitive, they’ve got no direct threats from humans down there, so they weren’t afraid at all.
Thanks for doing this. Did you encounter any surprising or interesting insect life in Antarctica?
No, nothing. There are obviously - across the whole year, we only saw 13 species of anything. The majority of those were birds, or marine mammals. Everything leaves in the winter so you’re only left with emperor penguins. Lawson, our director said the same thing - you’d be driving down on your skidoo and you could swear you’d see a bee flying past, but there’s nothing like that down there because it’s too cold and nowhere to breed either, because it’s just ice.
How much did you drink up there, and what was the go to drink?
I truly hope the answer isn't "hot toddy"
I drank a lot of coffee. We were staying at a German research station and the Germans like their coffee.
I did take an enormous amount of English Earl Grey tea with me - I’m a big tea drinker, and I didn’t think they’d have it, so I took an absolute boatload of tea with me.
I drank a lot of water - the station makes its own water from snow. It falls into a great big tank that gets turned into water. But mainly coffee and tea.
Well, this is the coolest AMA to wake up to, early. :D
What are temporary shelters like in Antarctic conditions? Between heat and wind concerns, I'd imagine the solutions would have to be creative.
We didn’t really have a temporary shelter because we were living in a scientific research center. We weren’t in tents or anything like that.
Every day we were managing to go to the colony - about 7km away, about 20 mins on a skidoo, so we didn’t have to use temporary shelters.
On a scale of "roses" to "gas station bathroom," how bad does a penguin colony smell?
It does smell a little bit, but not bad in any way. Because it’s so cold, anything that should smell just freezes, so you don’t really get a whiff of it. I didn’t experience a smell at all, when they poo on the snow obviously that freezes instantly.
What did you find was, despite preparing, completely unexpected about working on the project?
Probably the whole thing - you thought, or I thought, I could prepare for it in every aspect, but until you’re filming in blizzard conditions, you don’t know how the kit is going to cope, until you’re away for months on end, you don’t know mentally how you’re going to cope. And so you don’t know how it’s going to go in any respect of the trip.
Hi of all the penguins in there, is there anyone that really stick out? If yes, can you tell us the story.
I can’t identify individuals, but the one day we filmed the female with her chick, escaping the ravine, my respect for them grew enormously that day. She managed to get out on her own without any help. Seeing her not give up - it maybe took a couple of hours to climb the whole way out, with the chick on her feet. I was just elated when she got out and started waddling back toward the colony.
Happy Valentine's day.
Did you film any stone trading/stealing between amorus penguins?
Does the size of the stone matter?
That’s a different species - those are the Adélie penguin.
They don’t build nests like Adélies do. Emperor Penguins just lay their eggs straight onto the ice, they don’t build a nest. They put the eggs on their feet and that’s how they keep them warm.
What was the journey to and back from Antarctica like?
Was the equipment that you used any different from what you would typically use?
The journey there was quite easy. We flew from London to Cape Town in South Africa and then from Cape Town, it was about 6 or 7 hours to the Russian station. From the Russian station it was about 3 hours to the German station, which is where we ended up. Sometimes the weather can delay those flights, but both on our journey in and out, we didn’t get affected by weather so fortunately for us it was quite straightforward.
Kit-wise, not really any different to what I’d use normally. We winterized a few items, if you like, to make sure they withstood the cold. We changed the fluid in our tripods heads to make sure that wouldn’t freeze. However, it still froze on certain really cold days. We had to change some cables because the cables freeze solid and go so brittle that they just snap in half so we had to change the material of that. I changed a few rubber buttons for plastic ones ‘cause rubber goes rock solid and you can’t use them.
And batteries. I was powering stuff off a lot more batteries than I would normally and they would be in my clothing and cabled to the camera rather than in the camera - it was just too cold for that.
Do penguins have knees?
Probably? But I don’t know! Obviously you can only see their feet - I don’t know.
What an amazing opportunity! Did you want to leave? I mean, were you ready and looking forward to rejoining society or did you find yourself a whole new lifestyle that fits you better?
I was - my wife will hate me saying this but she understands - I was desperate to get home and meet my new family and see my wife, my mum, my dad and sister. But on the other hand, I got very used to the way of life down there. It’s so easy, there are no complications, money doesn’t exist, there’s no conflict, everyone helps each other out.
When the time came to leave, it was very difficult leaving, but on the other hand I had a little boy to get back to that I hadn’t met yet that I was extremely excited to get back to. It was 50/50. I don’t think anyone will quite understand what that feels like unless you’ve actually done it.
Hi Lindsay! Would you rather fight 1 horse-sized penguin or 100 penguin-sized horses?
Definitely one 1 horse-sized penguin, not 100. They look incredibly strong, so I wouldn’t want to be up against 100 of them.
Did you take turns washing the dishes, cooking etc?
We had a chef. With regards to washing the dishes, every evening we all did it. It became our sort of pattern down there. We all sat down and had dinner together and it only took about 10 minutes to wash everything up. We all just dug in every night. There’s only 12 of us. A couple of people would wash down the kitchen and the rest would wash or dry the dishes. That happened every night, w all did it rather than taking turns.