Before spending a year documenting emperor penguins for a film, British wildlife filmmaker Lindsay McCrae had never seen a penguin — not even in a zoo.
Every year at the start of the Antarctic winter, emperor penguins travel to their breeding grounds. Once the females lay eggs, the males take charge of them for over 100 days during the cold, dark winter. When the eggs hatch, the females return to take charge of the baby penguins.
McCrae spent 11 months in Antarctica capturing the famous march as director of photography for the BBC documentary “Dynasty's Emperor,” narrated by David Attenborough.
In his new book, "My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors," McCrae chronicles the experience of documenting emperor penguins for 11 months.
He dreamed of filming emperor penguins since watching the first part of Attenborough's wildlife series “Planet Earth” in 2006.
“I remember watching the images of the camera person on his knees in the most brutal conditions, and just being as far away from home as I could possibly get and experiencing probably the hardest conditions I'll ever experience,” he says. “It's weird — those are the things that attracted me to it.”
On top of the Antarctic cold, the trip posed an additional personal challenge for McCrae: His partner, Becky, was pregnant with their first child and she was due to give birth while he was away.
He says he knew about the trip two years before he left and after much discussion, the couple decided to “see what happens.” His son Walter was born in April and he didn’t meet him until he was seven months old.
But McCrae didn’t realize how his situation paralleled the penguins’ mating ritual until he saw the females pass their eggs to the males and turn around to walk away.
“I remember she took one glance back at her partner and then it dawned on me at how ironic this whole situation was,” he says. “That female was me a few months back. And I'd left [my partner] Becky back at home.”
The penguins’ colony was seven kilometers from the research station, where the filmmakers were living. On a good day, it took 10 minutes to get between the two. But during one harsh storm, the journey home took almost three hours.
One day, McCrae says he only found the station because he crashed into the front door.
"It's terrifying,” he says. “You can't see a thing because the visibility is zero. The wind is so strong … and you're just creeping along, hoping that the station is going to pop up in front of you.”
The filmmakers weren’t the only ones struggling to weather the Antarctic storms. Emperor penguins are famous for huddling together to withstand the intense weather.
The biggest storm hit 10 months into filming, he says, and the team found an unpleasant scene when they returned to the colony two weeks later.
They saw baby penguins that were separated from their parents and grown penguins looking for their young. The storm caused “enormous gullies” to form, he says, and the penguins that fell down them were trapped at the bottom.
After a long discussion about whether to intervene, the team decided to dig a shallow ramp to give the penguins an opportunity to climb back up.
McCrae says they wanted to give the penguins a lifeline without directly helping them, and the trapped birds decided to use the ramp to save themselves.
“They hadn't been chased in there by a predator. And if they would have died down there, there were no other animals in Antarctica at that time of year which would have benefited from feeding on a dead penguin,” he says. “We decided to give them a helping hand.”
Penguins are monogamous animals — they pair up each mating season and don’t return to the same partner the following year.
The penguins need a committed companion to get their chick through “the most horrendous conditions on earth,” he says.
During good weather, the team spent every day with the penguins.
When the filmmakers arrived at the colony, the penguins dropped onto their bellies and tobogganed over. The birds stood up, bowed and allowed the team to hear their trumpet call for the first time.
They tried to keep their distance from the penguins, but their subjects made the rules hard to follow: Sometimes, they would set up a camera and later find three penguins asleep to next to it, he says.
“A lot of these birds that we were filming had probably never seen a human before so they have no real reason to be afraid of us,” he says. “I like to think that they liked our company as much as we liked theirs.”
After spending a year marching among the penguins, McCrae says he worries about the future of the species.
Emperor penguins spend their lives on frozen ocean with few ever stepping foot on land. The birds’ mating ritual could be compromised without enough ice, putting the entire species in jeopardy.
As the planet continues to warm, McCrae says he worries emperor penguins could be “the first to get hit.”
He hopes to visit the emperors again for a short summer trip someday, but he doesn’t see another year with the penguins in his future.
“There's a real chance I'll never, ever see another one and that's a tricky thing to take,” he says. “I absolutely loved it, but I've lived my dream now and it wouldn't be fair on my family. So fingers crossed, I get another chance.”
Book Excerpt: 'My Penguin Year'
By Lindsay McCrae
To the Other End of the Earth
The next day we all woke early to our first morning at Neumayer, keen to start learning the ropes of living in our new home. So keen, in fact, that we’d forgotten to alter our clocks back from South African time and arrived for breakfast an hour early. Throughout the morning it became clear how active the summer months at Neumayer were. It was a busy place, providing accommodation for up to sixty people, all with different individual duties. Mechanics ensured the transport and enormous generators that powered the station remained in good working order. Electricians and maintenance staff updated components and repaired any scientific equipment that needed attention. Chefs, doctors and IT specialists took care of everyone who needed it. The common aim was ensuring the scientific experiments continued without disruption, which was, after all, the reason the station was there in the first place.
The daily routine was well planned and everyone was incredibly well looked after: breakfast was between 6:30am and 8am, a bratwurst (sausage) break followed at 10am, lunch was between 1pm and 2pm, then tea and cake at 3:30pm and dinner was between 7pm and 8pm. Even though people were working for long periods away from their families in pretty difficult conditions, morale always seemed high, but with such a short four-month summer season each year, work had to be completed quickly and efficiently before the winter weather set in.
I was desperate to get outside and see my first emperor penguin; the station leader arranged to give us a tour of the surrounding ice during our first afternoon. I’d been at Neumayer less than twenty-four hours and the whole team was excited for our first penguin encounter. For Will and me, the emperors were the sole reason we had committed so much. Late in the afternoon, we met outside the station by the snowmobiles. With each machine taking two people, I hopped on one with our mechanic. I had no idea what our leader had planned or where she intended taking us but driving along the flat landscape that afternoon was my first experience away from the station. Following a line of flags, the fleet of seven skidoos sped along the snowy surface. The air was cold and I had underestimated the amount of clothing I needed to wear; my face began to sting. Within ten minutes, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, everyone stopped. Even though we’d been hammering along at speed away from the station, I looked behind me and it seemed within easy reach. The empty landscape put a whole new perspective on distances.
Straight ahead of us, our leader pointed towards the northern horizon. Just like the
flags along the airstrip, black silhouettes were dotted across the ice in the distance. ‘Penguins,’ she said in a monotone voice. Having spent a year living close to the colony, for her the novelty of having emperors as neighbors had clearly worn off. Squinting, I tried to focus my eyes on one point across the white expanse. I wasn’t convinced and wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me again. I felt excited and, all of a sudden, restless. If they were emperors, I wanted a better view. Being told they were emperors was no good; I needed to see them. But as quickly as we had spotted them, they spotted us. Sliding on their bellies, two emperors began to rush over. I was aware that the species was inquisitive as very few emperors have ever encountered humans, but this seemed daft. I’d never had a wild animal come speeding towards me like this and it felt an honor to be trusted. I dropped to my knees and sat back on my ankles, letting the two birds come as close as they felt comfortable. The closer they slid, the more surprised I became. The rest of the group of emperors followed the two bolder individuals but went straight past, taking no notice of us. The two adults, however, just did not stop.
I didn’t dare move in case I surprised them, but as they approached almost to touching distance on their bellies, I felt maybe I should move out of their way. But just before I did, they both rose to their feet, bowed and with their signature trumpet call, introduced themselves. Being so close, the intensity of the sound went straight through me. Despite being so powerful that I could feel my ears vibrate, the sound wasn’t unpleasant. It was a sound I’d heard on television and online during research for my trip, and to hear it in real life was incredible. On my knees, I was the same height as they were at well over a meter tall, and I could see straight into their eyes. The pair were so close I could see every fiber on every feather. They seemed so relaxed standing just a few feet away and I could feel their charming and peaceful personas. Sitting in such calm conditions in the short and relatively tranquil summer season meant the penguins could relax; it was hard to imagine them battling the dark, raw, seemingly never-ending winter that I’d come here to film them in.
I looked at Will, crouched next to me, in disbelief. We wanted to say things to each other, but we were totally speechless. We both chuckled, knowing what this meant to each other. I felt like the luckiest man alive and I found it hard holding back the tears. In front of me, just a few meters away, was one of the world’s most famous and favorite creatures in its natural habitat.
From "My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors" by Lindsay McCrae. Copyright © 2019 by Lindsay McCrae. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
This segment aired on November 18, 2019.
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