Do you ever meet somebody and just think, “I wish I’d seen the things you’ve seen”?!

Described as “the toughest in the business” by Sir David Attenborough, Doug Allan has been working at the frozen Poles since the 1970s, initially as a marine biologist, then as a photographer and cameraman. He has won five Baftas and four Emmy awards for his work – all the more remarkable considering that he is entirely self-taught. He has also been awarded two Polar Medals and the British Antarctic Survey’s Fuchs medal for the footage seen in ground-breaking series such as Life in the Freezer, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet, A Boy Among Polar Bears and Planet Earth.

I know Doug through our mutual connection with the Plastic Oceans Foundation, and met him last year at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, California. I absolutely loved this eye-opening conversation. I hope you love it too!

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Show Notes

1:30 Doug’s intense relationship with the Antarctic and Arctic

6:30 Comparing notes on Sir David Attenborough and what quality documentaries do for environmental awareness

8:00 The Poles and climate change “We need to change the way we live if we are to save the planet”

9:15 The Petermann Glacier and its impact on cameramen and ocean rowers

10:25 The challenges of filming under water and ice caps – staying warm and not getting lost

17:30 How to photograph polar bears without getting killed, and Doug the dolphin whisperer

22:40 Doug’s most amazing wildlife encounter – WOW!

26:25 Are whales intelligent?

29:10 Plastic pollution at the poles

30:40 The role of wildlife films in raising ocean awareness and the potential dangers of tourism

33:30 What does the future hold for Doug?

35:00 Doug’s book: Freeze Frame

Animal Intelligence

Doug Allan
Doug Allan

“We have certain criteria for intelligence that are completely inappropriate for measuring the intelligence of animals….  Killer whales are probably the most advanced culturally of any animals on the planet.” (Doug Allen)

Few human beings have had the opportunity to spend as much time as Doug up close and personal with some of the most impressive megafauna on this planet – polar bears, whales, dolphins, and many more – and I found his perspective incredibly inspiring.

As more and more of us become urbanized, we are in danger of losing our ability to empathize with, even communicate with, animals. To hear Doug talk, in his very down-to-earth way, about the way to deal with a potentially lethal polar bear, or his incredible encounter with a whale, triggered off several thoughts:

1. There are ways to communicate that are non-verbal, non-visual – in fact, defy explanation through existing scientific method – but are nonetheless extremely real and very effective. And in Doug’s case at least, could save your life.

2. Bringing an attitude of love, empathy and understanding to any communication – be it with lethal polar bears or enormous whales, or even human beings – can break down hostility. Show fear or aggression, and you create a dangerous chemistry.

3. We are exterminating species every day without even knowing what we are losing. Quite possibly they are more intelligent than us. Just because we can kill them (because they don’t fight back) doesn’t mean that we should.

Doug Allan with humpback whale
Doug Allan with humpback whale

Doug spoke of whales as having deeply connected family members, passing knowledge down from one generation to another, having a high degree of intelligence and learning, and a lot of cooperation between the members of a pod. I’m not sure the majority of humans can claim the same.

A thought: when we claim to be an intelligent species, what does that really mean? Would whales do anything to destroy their own ecosystem? Would we? Who is smarter?

“When you are in the water with dolphins or belugas and one of them swims up to you and faces you and looks you straight in the eye and starts whistling and chirping and it seems to be directed right at YOU, you have to think, what is this animal trying to tell me and I just wish I could talk to you more.“ (Doug)

Oh wow, YES!


Doug’s website

The book: Freeze Frame: A Wildlife Cameraman’s Adventures on Ice. Recommended!!

British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

Frozen Planet (BBC)

Great interview, including high praise from Sir David Attenborough

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