For readers of Alfred Lansing’s gripping book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the island of South Georgia is known as the place where explorer Ernest Shackleton and five of his crew members found rescue in 1916 after spending months stranded in Antarctica when their ship was crushed in an ice floe. While a saving grace for Shackleton and his team, South Georgia Island was a sinister place for sea mammals; it served as the “southern capital of whaling stations” from 1904 to 1966, processing more than 175,000 cetaceans during its blood-soaked run. However, these days, thanks to conservation efforts, the British overseas territory is flourishing with animal life, including most of the planet’s fur seals, myriad whale species, and as many as 100 million seabirds.
It was on South Georgia Island that filmmaker Bertie Gregory spent months capturing the now-thriving flora and fauna for the second season of his National Geographic digital web show, wild_life. Gregory is particularly proud of this one, which is subtitled Resurrection Island.
“It’s this amazing bounce-back story,” the U.K. native told me over the phone from deep in a Peruvian jungle, where he is currently filming a project for the BBC. “[It’s a] tiny little island in the middle of the South Atlantic covered in millions of penguins and seals and albatross and all kinds of sea birds. You’d think that it was a place that was untouched by time, but in actual fact, humans destroyed it. But then we kind of realized the error of our ways, and we protected it. Wildlife is in a lot of trouble all around the world. [But it’s one of the] few examples to show that actually if we do contribute enough resources to something we do care about, it is possible for nature to bounce back, and I think that that’s pretty exciting.”
Gregory’s road to Nat Geo filmmaker was a short one. Enamored of animals since childhood, filmmaking was born of that interest. “I found frogs really weird when I was younger because I was obsessed with wildlife,” he said. “And I realized that if I took pictures and a video of what I was seeing, it was a really good way of explaining where the hell I’d been when I just disappeared by myself for hours on end. It was pretty cool to get people excited about things that I was excited about.”
At age 17, Gregory won a spot in the United Kingdom’s 2020 Vision Project, which selected 20 wildlife photographers under 20, assigned them each a location, and tasked them with capturing British fauna. Gregory was designated urban wildlife and came away with a portfolio filled with snaps juxtaposing architecture and animals.
His affiliation with Nat Geo began in 2014. The day after graduating from the University of Bristol with a degree in zoology, the budding filmmaker flew to South Africa to assist photojournalist Steve Winter, who was doing a piece on leopards. “I realized we were having all these amazing wildlife encounters, most of which would never see the light of day because the story is two years’ work that goes into basically 10 still photographs. I started shooting lots of video,” Gregory explained. “My job then morphed from being Steve’s assistant to still being his assistant but always shooting these TV shows. The first one was on leopards. The second one was on jaguars.”
Gregory eventually pitched his own proposal to National Geographic: filming Vancouver Island’s illusive coastal wolf. The result was Gregory’s wild_life, a 16-episode program and National Geographic’s first online wildlife series. He spent three months on the Canadian island hoping to get a glimpse of a wolf, which, after spending tedious days in a hide, seemed nearly impossible.
“It was my first solo project for National Geographic. To have all of that support and backing and then be on the brink of failure — it was pretty scary,” said Gregory. “I guess what motivates me to sit and wait is that that’s the only way often to film a particular animal behavior. By sitting there, you might get to see something that no one else has ever seen before. It’s more stubbornness that keeps me there. Everyone always says, ‘To film wildlife, you need to be patient.’ I think that’s bollocks. I’m not patient.” His tenaciousness paid off, however, as he eventually captured the wolf on film.
Since wild_life’s 2016 debut, Gregory has continued to tour the globe, shooting in exotic locales. A particularly memorable shoot was filming jaguars in Brazil with Winter. “I think it was 44 days we spent on the river looking to try and get a jaguar hunting one of these caiman,” he said. “And we saw jaguars every day, but to actually see one doing what we needed it to do was a long wait. We saw two hunts, and the first hunt happened behind a bush. So there was a lot of cursing. The second time it nailed one right out in the open and pulled it up the riverbank, and it was for sure the most incredible display of power by anything that I’ve ever seen. But the fact that we spent 44 days looking for it made it extra, extra special.”
On Sunday, January 13, Gregory will be in Santa Barbara as part of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures’ Nat Geo lecture series. What’s on the agenda? “How I got into it, adventures, and what I’m working on at the moment,” he said. “And I can promise animals doing cool things and lots of shit jokes. So, if you like [those things] … then come along.”
Bertie Gregory will present his adventure tales and breathtaking photograph and film work on Sunday, January 13, 3 p.m., in UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.