Singaporeans love to travel, but when it comes to grand outdoor adventures, we might not be as accustomed to it as someone with nature in their backyard. But, as someone who grew up with access to the National Geographic television channel and its magazines, adventures can simply mean living vicariously through a page or sitting in front of the TV.
Looking for a new adventure? Epic Adventures by Bertie Gregory, which premiered on Disney+ this month, is National Geographic's newest documentary, bringing the great wildlife to your living room. Helmed by Bertie Gregory, you'll get revealing insights into wildlife, rarely filmed instances of animal behaviours, and in one incredible episode, watch the largest known gathering of fin whales ever filmed.
A little about the titular host of this series first. At 29, Gregory is already one of BAFTA’s youngest cinematography winners for his work on ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’. He found his calling from a young age. At 14, his obsession with nature and photo-taking led him to win the Youth Outdoor Photographer Of The Year. After graduating in Zoology from the University of Bristol in 2014, he began assisting legendary National Geographic Magazine photographer Steve Winter, and has since produced and hosted six projects for National Geographic (‘Leopards at the door’, ‘Jaguar Vs Croc’, ‘Wild_Life’, ‘Resurrection Island’ and ’The Big Freeze’). He also filmed for the landmark BBC David Attenborough series.
When I spoke to him, I found an amiable and enthusiastic person who is clearly passionate about his work and wildlife. Here's a little adventure into this explorer's head.
*interview has been edited for clarity
So, you assisted legendary Nat Geo Mag photographer Steve Winter; how did that opportunity come about, and how did it shape your work now?
Bertie Gregory: When I was younger, I entered young wildlife photography competitions because that was a great way to meet other like-minded people and share our passion for animals. I won one of those competitions and, as a result, got to go to an event in London. Steve was there. He was looking for a new assistant, and I said the right thing, I was there at the right time, and yeah, it was my Willy Wonka golden ticket (moment). He offered me a job, and I worked for him for two years on some incredible assignments for the National Geographic magazine.
I learnt so much from Steve; I was very lucky he was such an amazing mentor. It's all about passion, and it's all about persistence. When I say persistence – you know his most famous image is (that) of a mountain lion in front of the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park in Downtown L.A. It took 15 months for him to get that single picture. When I was working with him, (persistence) was what I learnt.
In my new series Epic Adventures, we applied exactly the same thing in Antarctica on the fin whale episode. We were looking for massive gatherings of fin whales in really tough conditions, in a little sailboat bobbing around in the Drake passage, which is one of the world's toughest, roughest bits of the ocean to work in. In the month we had on the boat, we had six days where it was calm enough to actually look for the whales. And when I say calm, it was still pretty hairy, and I thought we wouldn't be successful, but I kept thinking about what Steve taught me. Be persistent, be passionate, read the environment, what is it telling you – that paid off because we saw the biggest gathering of fin whales ever recorded right at the end of our expedition. Such a huge honour to see that.
There are messages of conservation, mostly positive, peppered lightly around every episode. What's your thought process like balancing the cinematography with conservation messages? What do you think your role in it is?
Traditionally, the wildlife filmmaking industry generally has focused on incredible animal behaviour, and you know, to an extent, this has been misleading to the audience in that we have painted these wild animals in this Garden of Eden, this untouched wilderness. But you and I both know that the reality is just not true. The natural world is in big trouble, which means we humans are in big trouble, so I felt that it was critical to show these incredible animals and their amazing behaviours, but also talk about the threats they face because that's important.
In the lion episode: there are only 20,000 lions left in Africa. There are fewer lions than there are rhinos, and I think most people don't realize that. To me, that makes the story of these animals more powerful. (Of course), we can't just focus on the negatives, on the doom and the gloom. We met an incredible group of people there using satellite collars to protect the lions from the threats they face.
I think my role in that is to shine a big old spotlight on these amazing people and show that there is hope and good news to focus on.
Were there any moments during filming when you felt particularly emotional, and why?
Filming pilot whales about 50 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. We're in the middle of nowhere, just blue ocean as far as you can see in all directions. We were bumbling along in the boat and came across a pod of pilot whales. I got in the water, and the pilot whales fell asleep in front of me. When an animal is falling asleep in front of you, that's when you know it's really accepting of your presence and, I guess, trusting to an extent. I definitely nearly had a mask problem, you know, filling it up with tears. That was really special.
What do you think are some of the funniest/most ridiculous things you have seen while shooting this series?
We spent a lot of time with chinstrap penguins, and who doesn't love a little penguin, right? I just love the way these penguins make their nests out of rocks and how they'll go over to each other's nests and steal the rocks from their neighbours. You can see how cheeky they are. They're watching one another out the corner of their eye, and they wait for that neighbour to waddle off to go fish or do whatever and then they'll creep over and steal the stones. It felt very human watching that.
What are the main takeaways you hope people will walk away with from this series?
I hope that people come away from the series just really excited about the natural world but also aware of the threats that it faces and why that's important that we care about it. For the sake of wildlife and for us humans, I hope that they can see that wildlife can come back from the brink if we give them the chance to, and apply that to more places around the world.
After travelling to all of these different places, where would you want to visit again on your own accord, as a tourist maybe, and why?
I've been lucky enough to do that several times with filming. It's like meeting up with old friends; these animals all have different personalities and quirks. In answer to your questions: probably a bad answer, but I'd love to go back to all of the places. In particular, we had an amazing time with the lion pride that we followed in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. I hope one day I can go back and see how that pride is doing.
Inspired to start travelling?