From immense leopard seals to fighting Antarctic weather with fin whales, Bertie Gregory had some hairy encounters filming his new National Geographic series.
In our chat ahead of the fantastic Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory‘s premiere on Disney+ today, the host and I first touched on a few shared heroes. Firstly, there’s “The legend, Sir David Attenborough,” followed closely by Jane Goodall and the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. Some incredible naturalists have paved the way for the next generation of naturalist filmmakers like Bertie, to be sure.
Even though Crocodile Hunter is a huge misnomer for Irwin, I wanted to know what animal Bertie could see himself as the conservator of. His answer is a unique one, and an animal that opened the door to some of his most hairy encounters.
‘I’ve got a weird obsession now with fin whales’
“I’ve got a weird obsession now with fin whales,” he offers, grinning at the prospect of becoming Bertie Gregory: Fin Whale Hunter, or conservator, rather. “Really I’ve had it for a while, but there’s just something about them. And just this idea, that these enormous mammals gather in these mythical proportions near Antarctica; the first time I heard about that, I was just like, ‘That is the coolest thing. We’ve got to go for that.”
And go for it Epic Adventures did. This was their most “ambitious target” for the show, Bertie reveals of their Antarctic excursion. “It was definitely the hardest shoot I’ve ever done. We had a month on an ice-strengthened sailboat, crossing from South Africa down to Antarctica.”
To do so, the team “passed through the infamous Drake Passage, and when we got there we just had the most awful weather,” he laughs. “We had six days where it was calm enough to film in the whole month. And I say ‘calm,’ but it was still very hairy.”
But it all came together in the end, and Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory ended up filming the largest gathering of fin whales ever recorded. 300 of them, in fact.
“It looked like computer graphics!” the host laughs. “All of the whales going off with the big snowy mountains behind, I felt very, very lucky to see that.”
Yet as s close as Bertie came to the fin whales (which was really close, as the season finale showcases), it wasn’t the species that decided to place his head inside its mouth. That honor belongs to a particularly wily leopard seal.
Bertie Gregory’s Close Encounter with an Immense Predator: The Leopard Seal
“The leopard seal’s a funny one,” Bertie smiles of the core memory. In that same showcase, Season 1 Episode 5, “Tracking Ocean Giants,” the NatGeo explorer comes across a particularly curious and beautiful female leopard seal while in search of their target, the fin whales. As he’ll later explain, these seals are large and potentially very dangerous predators with immense, sharp teeth. And after a bit of curious nibbling, the seal places Bertie’s head into her gaping maw full of knife-like teeth. Then, with another pass, she charges hard, slamming her muzzle into Bertie’s torso before blowing the species’ fierce warning sign: bubbles.
A few more seconds in the water could’ve sent things south – and fast. But thankfully, Bertie knows a thing or
two thousand about marine mammals.
‘The fact that you’re looking at this animal immediately means it is not trying to kill you’
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the water with seals and sea lions, and they’re all different but they all sort of have common core behaviors. And the key is, if they actually wanted to attack you – they are ambush predators. So like we saw with the leopard seals hunting the penguins in the episode, they come out of nowhere; they use the element of surprise,” the host explains, which you can hear alongside footage of the encounter below. “So the fact that you’re looking at this animal immediately means it is not trying to kill you.”
As Bertie lauds of the gorgeous predators, “They look like dragons in the way that they swim! They’ve got these massive heads and big teeth. But they don’t have hands. If you or I want to find out what a new, weird alien object feels like, we use our hands,” Bertie motions. “They don’t have hands; they use their teeth. And so that’s what you’ve got to remember when it’s trying to stick the camera – or your head – in it’s mouth.”
Duly noted, but not exactly an encounter he recommends anyone to try. The seal was trying to figure out, as he cites, “what in the world this human diver and camera rig are.”
‘Even though I’ve said they’re not trying to hurt us, they’re a big, powerful animal, and we’ve got to respect that’
But like most mammals, leopard seals “totally reflect your state of mind. So if you’re totally calm and really chill, they’re calm and chill. If you get all suddenly jittery and blegh, they reflect that. So it’s important to stay calm and keep reading their behavior. Because, even though I’ve said they’re not trying to hurt us, they’re a big, powerful animal,” Bertie continues. “And we’ve got to respect that.”
As the encounter continued, “that female grew in confidence. She started to get a little more brave. And then she blew bubbles. Seals blow bubbles, generally, as a threat display when they’re getting a bit amped up. So as soon as that happened, Dan and I – Dan Beacham, an amazing underwater cinematographer – we both saw that, and we looked at each other. We didn’t even need to say anything. It was like, ‘Yeah, you saw that? Cool, time to go.”
That was the Epic Adventure crew’s cue to get out of the water, and the leopard seal “went back to smashing penguins,” Bertie laughs.
Through these Encounters, ‘Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory’ Highlights the Threats These Animals and Ecosystems Face
Throughout Episode 5 and the series at large, Bertie uses these extraordinary encounters to tell a much larger story; one that has become the de-facto topic of any naturalist series worth its sea salt.
“The big thing is, literally everywhere you go, even in the wildest corners of the planet, you can see the effects of humans on those animals. And while that is terrifying, as I’ve said, I’ve also got to work with some really inspiring people. And what gives me hope is, we saw time and time again while filming this series: if wildlife is given the chance, it makes an unbelievable comeback,” Bertie offers.
“Wouldn’t it be bad news if we trashed the planet like we have, and wildlife was slow to come back or it’s really hard for it to come back. But it’s not! You just have to give it the chance,” he adds. “And that’s really exciting.”
In the case of the fin whales, he explains that “commercial whaling in the southern oceans, or the oceans around Antarctica, smashed fin whales down to two percent of their original population. So [humans] hunted around seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand of them. But thanks to the ban on commercial whaling in the seventies, the whales have started to come back. Like humans, however, they are slow to reproduce; they’re long-lived animals and can live to 80-plus-years-old. So it’s only now that we’re really starting to see the comeback.”
For Bertie Gregory, “To see a wildlife event like that, three hundred whales all together… It’s very rare today that you see a wildlife event or wildlife gathering that is better now than it has been in the last twenty or thirty years. That’s very rare! So to see that was truly exciting and inspiring.”
It’s a sentiment Epic Adventures lives up to, and one that has me excited to see the follow-up Season 2 that both Disney and National Geographic have already requested.