Reviewed by Ian Carter
John Aitchison is, justifiably, one of our most acclaimed wildlife filmmakers, having worked on well-known series such as Frozen Planet, Yellowstone, Hebrides and Springwatch. This book tells the background story to some of his most memorable trips. If you watch these programmes regularly then some of the scenes he describes will already be familiar.
He seems to be drawn inexorably towards the colder and more remote places on earth, at both ends of the planet. Snow Geese, Siberian Cranes, Wandering Albatrosses, Wolves, penguins and fur seals are all central characters for individual chapters. Polar Bears are the main attraction in several.
In part, this book is the written equivalent of the ‘diary’ feature at the end of TV natural history programmes, with descriptions of the daunting logistics – the trials and tribulations – involved in securing spectacular footage of wildlife. Yet, despite the challenging conditions and more than a few hazardous incidents, the book has a gentle pace to it. He comes across as a calm, reflective sort of chap; taking in his surroundings, patiently waiting for filming opportunities and, outwardly at least, unfazed by setbacks and disappointments. He clearly has a deep connection with the environment and its wildlife and this comes through in his intimate descriptions. Polar Bears swim in the frozen sea ‘through the skin of ice while crystallising water crackles in their ears’ whilst a Snow Bunting flits past an ice-covered cliff ‘like a piece struck from the landscape’.
His writing consistently reflects a genuine concern for wildlife and his compassion extends to each individual animal. The book’s title highlights one predator-prey interaction that he does not relish having to film at close range. Inside Polar Bear country he is all too conscious of the threat posed to this animal by climate change and the fact that his film crew burn a lot of carbon in order to reach their remote locations. His ‘excuse’ is better than most but we all have our own excuses and, human nature being what it is, I guess we all believe we can make a special case. Still, having watched some of the footage he obtained, I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This is not the sort of book that I would necessarily always read. But I’m glad I did, and I’d recommend it to anyone who cares about wild places and the wildlife that lives there.
The Shark and the Albatross: travels with a camera to the ends of The Earth by John Aitchison is published by Profile Books.
Do you recall what Boabdil’s mother said to him?
Boabdil, or Muhammed XII of Granada, was the last Moorish ruler of Granada and as other parts of the Moorish empire in Spain fell to the Castilleans only Granada was left in 1491. Boabdil had to cede the city to Ferdinand and Isobella but was allowed to omit the indignity of kissing the hands of Los Reyes in his capitulation (thanks to the insistence of his indomitable mother, Aixa).
But Aixa was no softy: as her son paused to look back at the Alhambra (with its Blue Rock Thrushes) from the rocky outcrop known as the Moor’s Sigh, and was moved to tears, she said ‘Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man’.
But she has a point. Whenever we love something, like biodiversity perhaps, we should be prepared to defend it and not just mourn its loss when we could have done more.