David Attenborough’s cameraman saved Antarctic birds from dying in ravine by building snow ramp12 min read

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Watching tiny Emperor penguin chicks breaking out of their eggs, guarded for so long and so carefully by their fathers, was among the most magical moments I had filmed in Antarctica’s Atka Bay.

For nine weeks, each egg had rested on its father’s feet, protected by the ‘brood pouch’, a warm layer of feathered skin.

And, as each new arrival chirped through the shell’s hole to announce that it was trying to break free, its father bent down to greet it, his bill gently making contact with his chick for the first time.

Lindsay McCrae digs a ramp to help free the Emperor penguins from the icy gully

Lindsay McCrae digs a ramp to help free the Emperor penguins from the icy gully

They were intimate moments I knew I would treasure for ever. But I was also worried about the survival of these incredibly cute chicks I got to know in the following weeks of filming.

Within a month, the first arrivals had doubled in weight and were too big for the brood pouches. Forced on to the ice by their parents, they were strong enough that this was not immediately life-threatening, but we were about to be hit by the worst weather of the year.

It would be a challenge even for the adult penguins, whose coats have evolved to withstand freezing conditions. But many of the chicks were still covered only in fluffy down. With wind speeds expected to exceed 100 mph, those already evicted from the brood pouches wouldn’t stand a chance. All I could do as we finished filming before the bad conditions set in was wish the colony well.

The Great Escape: One by one, each penguin became aware of the possibilities the ramp offered and, by following the birds in front, they began to edge themselves to freedom

The Great Escape: One by one, each penguin became aware of the possibilities the ramp offered and, by following the birds in front, they began to edge themselves to freedom

That night, the wind picked up as forecast and, from then on, it didn’t cease. The station vibrated, our skidoos outside the front door became buried and our parked sledges blew across the ice.

Every weather we had experienced in previous months came back in a more brutal way than I’d ever seen before.

Day after day, I longed for it to give in, picturing the danger it would present to the colony. In the zero visibility created by the unrelenting blizzards, the penguins wouldn’t be able to see the enormous gullies that had opened up in the ice. These deathtraps had walls up to 60 ft high and, the more that I thought about the birds tumbling into them, the worse the images in my head became. I dreaded returning.

Unable to climb out of this icy prison with their chicks on their feet, those adults faced a harrowing predicament: dying a long, painful death with their young, or leaving them to their inevitable fate. Pictured, an adult penguin climbs out of ravine after abandoning its chick

Unable to climb out of this icy prison with their chicks on their feet, those adults faced a harrowing predicament: dying a long, painful death with their young, or leaving them to their inevitable fate. Pictured, an adult penguin climbs out of ravine after abandoning its chick

During that time, I kept myself as occupied as possible in the research station that had been our home for the past nine months.

Arriving there in December 2016 had been the fulfilment of a dream that had become fixed in my mind ten years earlier. It was November 5, 2006, and I, along with millions of others, became glued to the television watching David Attenborough’s ground-breaking wildlife series Planet Earth.

Growing up in the countryside around the Lake District, I had long thought about becoming a wildlife photographer.

Lindsay McCrae: 'It was an incredible feeling of joy and relief watching them line up along the ramp and return to the colony'

Lindsay McCrae: ‘It was an incredible feeling of joy and relief watching them line up along the ramp and return to the colony’ 

That evening, sitting on the sofa with a hot cup of tea, I felt an urge to be with the Emperor penguins who were filling my screen, battling the atrocious conditions that a winter at the bottom of our planet threw at them.

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Although penguins had always fascinated me, I’d never seen one, not even in a zoo, but they held a special place in my heart.

In nature, nothing quite defines perfection like an Emperor penguin. Out of the world’s 17 species of penguin, they’re both the largest, at nearly 4ft tall, and the heaviest, at 55lb. With their golden cravats, dazzlingly white diamond bellies and long, pink-and-blue, curved bills, they are also one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth.

I longed to see them in their natural habitat, and my dream came a step closer when, at 18, I got a job as a runner on the BBC’s Springwatch programme.

Lindsay got to know the incredibly cute chicks over the following weeks of filming in Antarctica’s Atka Bay

Lindsay got to know the incredibly cute chicks over the following weeks of filming in Antarctica’s Atka Bay 

I was basically a dogsbody, there to do anything asked of me, but eventually, I worked my way up to become a cameraman and within a few years came the offer to film penguins in Antarctica for David Attenborough’s Dynasties series.

I knew immediately that I wanted to go, but there was a catch. I would have to be away for 11 months. For eight of those, the weather would be so unpredictable and extreme that both air and boat transport would be unable to reach us. No way in; no way out.

Until recently, it wasn’t uncommon for people travelling to Antarctica to have their appendix removed beforehand, to avoid any possibility of needing an appendectomy while away from medical help.

For nine weeks, each egg had rested on its father’s feet, protected by the ‘brood pouch’, a warm layer of feathered skin. Pictured, Emperor penguins with their chicks

For nine weeks, each egg had rested on its father’s feet, protected by the ‘brood pouch’, a warm layer of feathered skin. Pictured, Emperor penguins with their chicks 

Nowadays, the facilities are so advanced that such operations can be performed at certain stations.

Regardless, I was examined from top to bottom — literally. I had a thorough dental check, resulting in a filling being replaced in case it came loose.

To my horror, an X-ray almost resulted in having my wisdom teeth removed, just in case they became impacted while I was there. Luckily, I got away with that one.

It would also be the longest I’d ever been away from home, and I’d only recently bought a house with Becky, my girlfriend of six years.

Becky had uprooted her whole life to move up to the Lake District to be with me, and we were living very happily together with our two dogs, Willow and Ivy.

That she agreed to me going says a lot about the person she is. Especially since, in the late summer of 2016, with only a few months to go before my scheduled departure, Becky discovered she was pregnant.

By then, I had already committed to the penguin project. There was no option other than to be away for the birth. When our son, Walter, arrived in the world four months after I’d arrived in Antarctica, my first sight of him was via a videocall on my computer.

The image was blurry, but the audio was as clear as day, the sound of a screaming little baby dominating before Becky’s face filled the screen. ‘I wish you were here,’ she said, shedding tears of joy at the birth of our new baby boy, but also of sadness that we weren’t together. My own tears began to trickle down my cheeks, and not for the last time.

A month or so later, the female penguins began laying their precious eggs, then disappeared north for the next two months to find open water in which they could feed.

The unhatched offspring were left in the care of the males, who would incubate them for around 64 days, the longest continuous duration in the bird world.

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I had filmed one pair as, the transfer to the male’s feet complete, he blanketed the egg with his feathers, dropped his shoulders and closed his eyes — signalling to the female that their unborn offspring was safely in his care.

Walking away, she hesitated and glanced back. I couldn’t help but translate it as: ‘Stay safe, I won’t be long.’ Her head dropped, she fell on to her belly and started to toboggan away into the distance.

The strength of the bond between the two birds was overwhelming and, all of a sudden, I was struck by the parallels between a pair of Emperor penguins and my own relationship with Becky.

This pair had just separated, not knowing if they’d ever see each other again, and, as I thought of the moment I’d left Becky and our unborn baby at the front door of the house, it hit me. Tears filled my eyes and froze immediately to the tops of my cheeks and balaclava.

Clearly, my emotions were very close to the surface, and they weighed on me during the long days and nights when September came and we found ourselves confined to the research station by that severe weather which posed such a threat to the colony.

Desperate to get out into the painful outdoors to do more filming, I knew that what we were going to find might be ugly, but the question was: just how ugly?

Finally, after just under two weeks, which felt like a lifetime, a break in the storm opened up, giving me the chance to get back down to the birds and survey the carnage with the director, Will, and assistant cameraman, Stefan.

Like molehills in a field, hundreds of downy bodies lay strewn across the ice sheet. Blown huge distances away from the colony, those helpless penguin chicks — who had so recently lost the protection of their parents’ brood pouches — had simply frozen to death.

Others lay on their backs, still alive, but stuck to the ice. Waving their feet in the air, they were attempting the impossible task of righting themselves.

Looking down into the depths of one huge gully, I could see chicks desperately trying to scramble out, attempting to grip on to the near-vertical walls of ice. I couldn’t bear it.

I had spent so long with the Emperor penguins — and gone through almost every moment of their breeding season with them — that they felt like family. Seeing them in this state and not being able to help was heartbreaking.

Some of the adults in the gully had chicks still too young to leave their brood pouches.

Unable to climb out of this icy prison with their chicks on their feet, those adults faced a harrowing predicament: dying a long, painful death with their young, or leaving them to their inevitable fate.

Half way through the day, a couple of the penguins suddenly looked as if they’d had enough. Stepping away from their chicks without looking back, they did not appear to have any second thoughts. They knew what they were doing.

For the helpless chicks, their first few premature steps on to the ice would be their last.

That evening and the following day, we were unable to get back to the colony, but, as a team, we spoke in depth about what we’d seen and decided that, depending on the situation when we managed to return, we had to intervene in some way to try to help.

Stuck in the station, all I could think about were the trapped birds and what they were going through.

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I constantly checked the weather and wind speed outside and I knew that they would be struggling.

After 48 hours, thankfully the weather broke and we could get back down there. Peering into the gully at the group of adults stranded there, it was clear that, since we’d left them, more had decided to abandon their young to save themselves. We couldn’t let that continue to happen, so, after lowering ourselves into the bottom of the gully with ropes and harnesses, we set to work with big red shovels, digging into the slope and forming a ramp that they could potentially shuffle up with their chicks.

Climbing out of the gully, I wondered what the penguins were thinking. We’d done our bit — now it was up to them. But were they clever enough to figure it out?

The answer came as two individuals headed to the end of the gully we’d been working in. Naturally nosy creatures, they just couldn’t hold themselves back from investigating what we’d been up to.

Once at the base of the ramp, the first bird simply didn’t stop. Slowly shuffling one foot after the other, he carefully scaled the incline all the way to the top.

One by one, each penguin became aware of the possibilities the ramp offered and, by following the birds in front, they began to edge themselves to freedom.

It was an incredible feeling of joy and relief watching them line up along the ramp and return to the colony. I understood that our actions would be seen as controversial, that some people would claim we should have let nature take its course, but being there I also saw the other side of it.

The Emperors and their chicks hadn’t been pushed or chased into the gully by a predator, and their slow, lengthy deaths wouldn’t have immediately benefitted any other life form.

Also, the help we had given them was indirect. By digging a shallow ramp, we’d given the penguins an option, a way out, but we had left the decision to them.

They didn’t have to use it, but they did: they saved themselves.

That certainly seemed to be the consensus when the film was eventually broadcast back in the UK, with many viewers expressing their support for the rescue, and praise for the film generally, all of which was a massive relief

When I was out there shooting for all those months, I never really knew what the finished documentary would look like, but the team did an incredible job with what we’d managed to capture and the film was stunning.

Eight million people tuned in to watch when it was first shown and, since then, it has been seen across the world. I still find those numbers difficult to comprehend. Very, very few get the chance to visit Antarctica, let alone see an Emperor penguin in the wild.

I hope we demonstrated to all those viewers just how incredible the creature is.

A quote I read before I ever thought I would make it to Antarctica had always struck a chord with me. It came from Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an English explorer and author who joined Captain Scott’s ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century.

‘Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin.’

I can now say I have witnessed first-hand the brutal truth behind that statement.

  • My Penguin Year by Lindsay McCrae is published by Hodder at £20. © Lindsay McCrae 2019. To order a copy for £16, call 01603 648155 or visit mailshop.co.uk. FREE delivery on all orders. Offer valid until November 26, 2019.