Move over, David Attenborough: intrepid, inspirational women are at the heart of the teams who study animals in their natural habitats and make such hugely popular TV series as Blue Planet II and Natural World. Four adventurers reveal all about the work that takes them to the world’s most remote regions…
Hannelore Cuypers, 32, is base leader for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, where the world’s most southerly post office can be found. Her home is on the Lofoten Islands in Norway.
I’m currently living with a team of three other women at Port Lockroy, the British island territory roughly the size of a playing field. For five months, from November to March, we live and work here, running the post office, managing visitors to the museum and shop and maintaining the site. I’m also responsible for surveying the resident gentoo penguin colony.
We’ve grown used to 24 hours of daylight, no running water, flushing toilet or showers and no phone signal. Out here, conditions are testing and temperatures can dip to minus 20 degrees during the winter. We communicate with the outside world by satellite email, chip off ice from the glacier for water and rely on passing ships for showers. The rest of the time we use wet wipes, which I don’t mind. Humans don’t need to shower every day; it’s healthy to keep natural oils on the skin.
Penguin behaviour is surprisingly human. Last year one approached me with a rock, put it at my feet and bowed. A colleague explained that the penguin wanted to build a nest with me. I was shocked he’d mistaken me for one of his own kind until I realised I must smell so much of gentoo poo that he no longer noticed the differences between us.
It’s an unusual job, but my life very nearly took a different path. In 2009 I graduated from the University of Bergen and began work as a dentist. Despite the generous salary, I hated the role and some days I struggled to find motivation to get out of bed. I started trekking and hiking at weekends, which awakened something in me.
By 2015 I’d taken a five-month sabbatical to complete a 2,986km trek with a friend along the most remote and desolate areas of the Norwegian border. The weather was terrible and we endured two months without seeing the sun, walking through deep snow and sleeping in a tent, but it showed me I had to do something in life I cared about.
My parents are adventurous, too, and I grew up dog sledding and racing. I remember a trip to Alaska they took me on when I was seven with my brother, who was a year older. We met bears, seals, whales and went sea kayaking during a tremor caused by a nearby volcano, Mount Spurr.
We were lucky to be washed ashore amid huge waves but it made a deep impression on me. It helped me to respect nature and wildlife and learn that we share this planet with other people as well as species. It’s not our own to do with as we wish.
For more about the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, visit ukaht.org
Justine Evans, 51, is a wildlife camerawoman and cinematographer. She lives with her husband Max in Herefordshire. She has made films for Planet Earth (2004), Life (2009) and Frozen Planet (2010) and the places she has travelled to include Greenland, Bhutan and the Arctic.
In the three decades I’ve been working in filmmaking there has only been one moment when I’ve feared for my life. While filming elephants near Mount Elgon in Kenya in 2003, myself and a couple of rangers accidentally got too close to two females with calves in a thick bamboo forest.
One ran straight at us and, as we were fleeing, I stopped and turned around, wrongly assuming it was a mock charge and that I’d get a lovely shot of her retreating. In my scramble to escape I tripped while she descended on me, but I managed to throw myself behind a large tree just in time.
Zoology has changed since my interest in it was piqued in the early 1990s at Bournemouth Film School. Most people on my course wanted to make feature films while I was out filming short campaigns for the RSPB about lowland heathland bird habitats in my spare time – anything to focus on the natural world.
Back then it felt like a bit of a fuddy-duddy subject. Now younger generations are enthralled as they feel empowered to make changes to our planet.
Technology has opened up night filming in a way never before achieved. Recently, while filming in Italy, I used a thermal camera to capture a mouse running around a hillside a mile away in the dark. You can spot anything with warm blood from vast distances, which makes my job much easier.
Chimps are the most challenging to shoot. I’ve grown accustomed to them using me as a climbing frame, shoving me from behind or throwing rocks. My favourite species to film is gibbons, high up in tropical forest canopies. They are balletic gymnasts that live in nuclear families which are surprisingly similar to human ones.
The males and females sing duets at dawn to strengthen their bond. On one occasion a male appeared within touching distance of me on a viewing platform high in a forest canopy in Southeast Asia.
He gave a large yawn, shook his head and walked off. Later I learned the yawn was an aggressive form of posturing and he could have been seconds from slashing me with his teeth.
David Attenborough is great company. He is so entertaining. Shooting The Life of Mammals (2002) and The Life of Birds (1998) gave me the privilege of working with him. The best thing he said to me was, ‘Getting old has nothing going for it – don’t be fooled.’ That made us roar with laughter.
Lucy Cooke, 47, is a documentary producer, presenter, author, National Geographic explorer and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society. She lives in London.
My most precious possession is a Tasmanian wombat poo, shaped like an Oxo cube, that I keep in a display case. Wombats mark their territory on logs so, were it round, it would roll straight off. After decades travelling the globe, evolution still blows my mind. I love the freaks and ‘otherness’ of nature – how weird and wonderful it is.
My father is an amateur ornithologist and my grandfather was a shepherd on Romney Marsh. Watching David Attenborough’s Life on Earth as a seven-year-old felt like a call to arms. A fondness for nature is in my blood.
Early in my career I spent ten years making travel and history documentaries on everything from East African tribes to the opium-growing mountain people of Laos.
I read zoology at Oxford University under Dr Richard Dawkins. We’d have one-on-one tutorials discussing why seagulls flock together. Though intimidating, he was an extraordinary scientific communicator.
I had an unconventional midlife crisis at 39. I decided to embrace my single freedom and go to South America solo for six months to investigate a frog extinction crisis. Editors wanted cute, furry animals on television, so no one would commission the idea, but I went anyway and wrote a blog about my discoveries.
On arrival in Chile I blagged my way on to an expedition looking for rare male Patagonian frogs that incubate babies in their throat and then burp them up.
I visited eight countries, licked poison dart frogs in Colombia to find out how poisonous they were and unearthed a backstreet frog smoothie racket where liquidised amphibians were being sold as Viagra.
When I returned, National Geographic offered me a TV series championing Earth’s most ugly and unloved creatures. Since then I’ve written a book, The Unexpected Truth About Animals, on exploding bats and lovesick hippos.
As human beings we should be less cheetah and more sloth. We could learn a lot from them by slowing down and smelling the hibiscus. I’m fascinated by their lackadaisical lifestyle so I founded the Sloth Appreciation Society.
Now I tour schools and festivals discussing why we should educate the world that being fast is overrated.
When I started there were far more male than female zoologists, but that’s changing. Women are so good at observing, being quiet and immersing themselves in their environment.
Men tend to be quick and goal orientated, looking for data, analysis and results. Forging an unconventional path when you don’t have many role models takes confidence but I’ve learnt to be brave. You only get one life.
Miranda Krestovnikoff, 44, is a wildlife and diving presenter and president of the RSPB. She lives near Bristol with her husband Nick and their two children, Amelie, 11, and Oliver, nine.
As a child I practically lived in a copper beech tree in our garden, watching squirrels and even doing my homework up there. I would turn our laundry room into a menagerie of hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits and gerbils during school holidays when I volunteered to look after pets belonging to the local boarding school’s pupils while they were away.
So it was no surprise to my family that I channelled my love of animals into studying zoology at Bristol University. I got into presenting accidentally. After university I applied to present a wildlife series on Fox TV in America without even possessing a showreel.
A friend hastily shot footage of me while another loaned me two garter snakes and I recorded a piece to camera. Miraculously, I got the job. My first assignment, aged 25 – shark diving in the Florida Keys – was a terrifying baptism of fire.
Cloaked in chainmail and surrounded by Caribbean reef sharks, I had to wave pieces of chicken and fish around to show their preference for the latter. I was bitten on my arm – not badly – and was so focused on presenting to camera that I didn’t realise I was out of air by the end.
I had to resurface to retrieve another canister to decompress, which turned out to be empty so I swam up and collected a third. I only had a small headache afterwards, but it was an invaluable safety lesson.
There’s been a real sea change in female representation in my industry. The only frustrating thing is when producers assume you need to be a man to do extreme sports. I can dive just as deep as any guy.
My children are not yet old enough to take on adventures with me and being separated from them for long periods is the hardest part of the job. I’ve missed school plays, sports days and feel indebted to the au pairs they had when they were younger.
My husband is amazing but I try to remember when we’re on Skype not to regale him with stories of meeting duck-billed platypuses in Australia when I know he’s been stuck at home doing the cleaning.
My job is never boring. In the past year I’ve spearheaded the RSPB’s Wild Challenge project, which aims to get all ages into green spaces, and presented for BBC’s The One Show and Coast.
The former took me to the North Sea in search of mammoth bones and Cornwall to report on the first dalmatian pelican to fly to Britain from Europe in potentially thousands of years.
Feature by India Sturgis