Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Polar Bears & The Death Zone - BBC #OperationIceberg

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Operation Iceberg, Tues 30th November, 9pm, BBC2

"This is the real death zone, where maelstroms churn in anticipation of millions of tonnes of merciless ice cracking free of its mother lode and smashing all before it. Not ideal in a fragile craft whose top speed is eight knots." - Chris Packham, BBC Nature

 I'm currently boiling in the Australian outback but if I was in the UK I'd be looking forward to an evening chilling with the trendy team who front Operation Iceberg on BBC2. In the first programme, 'Birth of a 'Berg', the team uncover the hidden forces that explain why the Store Glacier of Greenland produces so many icebergs. The ever-cool Chris Packham joins scientists on a research yacht in the danger zone at the front of the glacier, whilst hot science chick Helen Czerski explores the inside of the glacier itself. During the expedition the team witnesses the creation of an iceberg as a multimillion-ton block of ice calves off the glacier.  Find out more on the BBC programme page.

"There was a real risk that this newly created chunk of ice would flip over taking the ship with it. Quite frankly, there were many times during the expedition when I wished that someone else was making the series." Andrew Thompson, Producer, TV Blogs

Chris Packham, Helen Czerski, Andy Torbet and Chris Van Tulleken
"The ice edge towered over us, vertical, angular and utterly spectacular. We steamed around the berg until we found lower cliffs, and suddenly the icescape behind was revealed. It looked like a mini version of the South Downs, carved into ice. Gentle mounds were separated by valleys, and these led down to waterfalls of meltwater cascading into the ocean. The iceberg made its own fog, so we could only see a little way into the centre. We sailed round it, living life just on the wrong side of the edge, and peering hopefully over the top of the cliffs like a dog eyeing up a loaded dinner table." - Helen Czerski

Polar Bears on the 'berg
Polar Bear on the 'Berg, by Chris Packham
"Slowly and surely its shape shifted from cosy cushion to robust predator, it rose gently without alarm and confidently padded to the top of the jagged crest that hung above our ships bow." - Chris Packham

"Curious polar bears peered back. We had thought we would be lucky to see one or two, but the iceberg turned out to have a healthy population of these huge carnivores. The summer is a lean time for them, as they wait for the sea ice to come back so that they can hunt. So they were snoozing away, not at all bothered that their chosen holiday home was moving, tilting, melting, breaking up and giving a TV production team and some scientists severe logistical headaches." - Helen Czerski

"It was soon very clear that the presence of all these polar bears would severely limit what we could do. They are the largest land predator on earth and have been known to attack and kill people." - Andrew Thompson

The glaciers front, by Chris Packham (see more spectacular images on the BBC series page)
The science team download data on the 'berg, by Chris Packham
View across the store glacier, by Chris Packham

Friday, 19 October 2012

'The Croc Killer' Worlds Most Famous Tiger - Queen of Tigers tonight on The Natural World

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"There is an old jungle saying in these parts. Of a tigress who stalks. Of a tigress who rules Ranthambore. Of a tigress whose majesty is assured as much by the gaze of millions she arrests with the distinctive ‘fish’ mask outlining her eyes, as the YouTube clips of her legendary exploits: her jaws choking a 14-foot crocodile lifeless here, her snarl warding off a predatory male in defence of her cubs there. The survival of the tigress, goes the old jungle saying, is the survival of the tiger." - Ninad Sheth

Tonights Natural World (9pm BBC2) is the story of Machli, the most famous tiger in the world. A natural fighter, but also a loyal, loving mother. She rules over Ranthambhore, the most spectacular tiger territory in India and is one of a powerful dynasty. She is now in the last season of her life and wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson returns to find his old friend one last time. www.mikebirkhead.com

"The tigress Machali has long been under media spotlight and has gained tremendous attentions amidst the vast ranges of animal and tiger lovers. There could be many reasons behind her fame but the one and only thing that has captivated many attentions are her muscular and majestic look and her dominance at the whole Ranthambore jungle." www.ranthamborenationalpark.com

Machali made headlines around the world when she was filmed fighting with a 14 foot long crocodile - the first time that such an encounter had been recorded, and in 2009 she was given a 'lifetime achievement award' after it was estimated that she had earned $10 million a year by attracting tourists to India. At the old age of 14, and missing many of her teeth, Machali continues to retain her position as the most famous and photographed wild tiger in the world. 

In 2009 wildlife photographer Dicky Singh captured these stunning images of a battle between Machali and a younger male.
Source: Mail Online

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Travelling with wind ;-) Treasure, Slavery & The Red Continent in Bare Essentials Magazine

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As published in Bare Essentials Magazine and featuring 17 of my photos from around the world.

As a natural history filmmaker, I’ve chased the monsoon across India and storms in Australia, I’ve faced the chill of the Arctic and I’ve climbed mountains and volcanoes in search of meteorological beauty. I’ve become fascinated by the diversity of weather that I’ve experienced around the world, and increasingly by how the weather and climate has influenced human culture and history. One phenomenon that has had a profound influence on all of our lives is the giant powerful circulations of air, known as Hadley cells, that wrap around the planet. I first witnessed their grip on history when I visited Mauritania, whilst making a series called ‘How Earth Made Us’.

Driving east through monotonous sandy landscapes I eventually spotted the town of Chinguetti on the horizon - an oasis of small stone and mud-brick buildings amongst a vast expanse of dunes. At the centre stands a stone mosque with its towering minaret - one of the oldest mosques in the world. Many of the buildings here are more than 700 years old, built when this town was thriving.

I walked through Chinguetti’s narrow alleyways, the shade a welcome respite from the desert heat, as prayers echoed from the failing electric speaker attached to the minaret. The streets were empty and partially buried with wind blown sand, the buildings crumbling and wind beaten. It was hard to imagine a time when 20,000 people bustled here, trading camels, gold and ivory. But hidden away down the back streets, there are reminders of Chinguetti's glorious past.

In a stone building with the word ‘Bibliothèque’ simply written on the door, I met Saif Al Islam. He was standing proudly behind a dusty wooden counter. The room was dimly lit and behind him dozens of shelves towered into the shadows – each holding rows of plastic boxes - the repository of some of the finest cultural treasures in Africa.
Saif reached for a box and opened it to reveal a thick dog-eared book. He carefully removed it and showed me the pages, each was decorated with intricate colourful diagrams and beautiful Arabic text. “These patterns and concentric rings are a representation of the solar system” he told me. Dating to the fourteenth century, surely proof that Arab scholars knew something that the authorities in Europe refused to acknowledge for a further 200 years. Another box held “The oldest Koran in West Africa, from the 10th century and written on goat hide”, and another, a book of poetry which Saif said had come from East Africa. Natural Sciences, medicine, history, mathematics - a priceless record of ancient African knowledge. “If words are not written down, sometimes the meaning is lost never to be found again” said Saif, as he slid the box back in place.

The Al Ahmad Mahmoud Library has been run by the same family for over 300 years and holds more than 3000 ancient manuscripts many of which are unique - and this is one of dozens of libraries throughout Chinguetti. Chinguetti owes its existence to the desert that made established trade routes necessary, but more significantly it owes this to the wind and the powerful circulations of the atmosphere that created the deserts.

If we could see these Hadley cells at work they would look like 6 giant rotating rubber rings snuggly wrapped around the globe. Their grasp on the planet begins at the equator where the sun is at its hottest. Here the air rises, then cools as it spreads north and south of the equator, until it sinks back to Earth, heating up again in the process to create a band of hot, dry desert, including the Sahara and Arabian deserts in the northern hemisphere and Australia in the South.

Like mountains and oceans, deserts are barriers that separate cultures. Over 1,000 years ago nomads were forging routes through the Sahara desert and as they did Oasis towns sprang up, prospering from the exchange of goods, culture and knowledge. Traders brought manuscripts, which were copied by scholars and kept by wealthy families.

Chinguetti’s fortune was made by the wind, and ironically its decline was due to an understanding of how those same winds worked. Christopher Columbus’s discovery of circular patterns of the atmosphere and the reliability of particular winds, fuelled the rise of the ocean trade routes in the 15th and 16th centuries. Now that sailing ships could bypass the old desert trade routes, Chinguetti was eclipsed and the wealth moved to ports easily reached by Europeans, like those on the Gold Coast, now called Ghana.
I first visited Ghana in 2007 to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. I was documenting British teenagers as they visited historical locations and formed cultural bonds with people from some of the 100 cultural groups across the country. It was an emotional journey of self discovery for the group. Everywhere we travelled we were greeted by local tribes who performed traditional dances and shared local stories, but amongst the brightness of the costumes and excitement of our arrival, we could never forget how this country had been affected by the slave trade. In the north we visited Assin Manso - a river where captives had their last bath on African soil. In the market town of Salaga we stood in the shade of the haunting baobab tree where many slaves were either sold or buried. The melancholy of this moment was broken by smiling children running from every house to see us, and to have their photograph taken.

The most poignant location and a site of pilgrimage for many people of African descent is Elmina Castle on the coast. From a distance the Portuguese-built castle looks cheery - painted white, surrounded by palm trees and lined with canons, but this front hides a dark history. As we descended into the dark dungeons the mood changed, the young people I was with became hushed. Some of them started to cry. They knew the horrors that had taken place in these airless, damp cells. Built originally for the storage of ivory and gold - by the early 1500s their function had changed dramatically, and instead they were packed with a very different kind of commodity – slaves. Each one held up to 200 men and women, crammed in, struggling for breath. They waited a month for the slave ships to arrive, and it’s believed that more than half died.

While Europe boomed, Africa's place in the world had been changed forever by our deeper understanding of the wind. Now ships could ride the easterlies, which blew from the Gold Coast to America, and return on the westerlies which blew them back to Europe.This became known as the triangular trade route and in the 400 years after Columbus made his epic voyage, nearly 12 million slaves were shipped across the Atlantic

The discovery of the westerly winds also led to increased trade with China and South East Asia, and eventually to the European discovery of Australia - a continent that has perhaps been shackled by the effects of the wind more than any other. I’ve always had a love affair with the stark beauty of the Australian outback. Nowhere else on Earth feels so much like another planet. Seemingly inhospitable and barren, yet people have lived here for more than 50,000 years.

In 2009 I travelled to central Australia to document significant sites of aboriginal belief. Dr Judith Field, archaeologist at the University of Sydney, took me to Ewaninga, a dry, cracked claypan 35kms south of Alice Springs. In the searing heat, and bothered by persistent flies, we explored some of the 1000 petroglyphs neatly chipped into the polished red rocky outcrops. “Some of these date back 30,000 years” Judith explained “and within 200kms of Alice Springs there’s more than 500 sites covered in thousands of petroglyphs”. Like Ewaninga, all sizeable water reserves were of religious significance, as well as meeting points and vital lifelines for the people who lived here. Judith passed me a smooth flat rock, and a spherical one that fit snugly into the palm of my hand. “These were used for grinding up millet seeds and tubers”. What’s surprising is that they’ve been dated to 30,000 years ago - 20,000 years older than those used by the first farmers in Asia and the Middle East. Why this technology didn't lead to the type of farming that emerged elsewhere has always been a mystery, and current thinking now points to the winds.

In the outback there’s little opportunity to get up high but I was granted permission to climb Mount Connor, or Atilla as aboriginal people know it, the forgotten monolith of central Australia. Like Uluru and Kata Tjuta, Attila is a prominent feature in an otherwise flat and featureless landscape. It lies at the geographical and spiritual centre of Australia, and it also happens to lie at the heart of a incredible circular wind system. Here the descending air of the Hadley cell is deflected by the spin of the earth, to create a giant anti-clockwise swirl around most of the continent. Fly over central Australia and you can see the sand dunes aligned with the path of the winds.

As the air heats up and rises back into the atmosphere, it takes any moisture with it and leaves the continent parched and dry. With minimal vegetation to anchor sediment in place, fertile dust and nutrients continue to be blown away. Giant dust storms regularly engulf Eastern Australia. In 2009 a dust plume more than 500 kilometres in width and 1,000 kilometres in length swept over New South Wales and Queensland loaded with more than 16 million tonnes of dust.

On other continents fertility may be continuously replenished by material washed down river from mountains - the Euphrates in the middle east, the Ganges in India, the Yellow River in China, but on a tectonically stable and flat continent such as Australia the mountains have long since disappeared and there is very little left from which to top up the fertility.

While civilisations prospered elsewhere, the climate and the winds dealt a tough hand to the ancient Aboriginal people and it seems that with large areas of the continent bare and arid, it was more fruitful to continue with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle than to take up farming. They had to be ingenious and adaptable, utilising a wide range of wild food sources, and instead of living in permanent, settled communities, they lived instead in small, mobile groups, always able to move in search of food. They created stories to understand the land, and left their carvings as testament to their beliefs.

No one knows what the future may bring, but one thing is certain, the weather and climate will continue to influence cultures around the world and direct the course of history.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Amazing Fast Food Leopard Kill

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If only this happened when we were out filming.

"We nearly missed this leopard on our early morning game drive. We were watching her for about half an hour when something spooked the herd of Impala on the opposite side of the road. The Impala ran straight into the leopard". 

I wonder what spooked the impala? A herd of tourists coming from the opposite direction because they'd heard that another jeep had a view of a Leopard? 

The Attenborough Drinking Game?

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I've never heard a David Attenborough documentary being described as intoxicating, until now! A friend sent me the idea of 'The Sir David Attenborough Drinking Game' as posted on Cheezburger.com, and I had to share it.

Warning: This could be dangerous if you're watching the Eden TV channel.

(NB: Best used with coffee for a morning pick me up, and in no way condones excessive drinking on a friday night ;-)


On the other-hand some of Sir David's documentaries could be described as sobering, like this sequence from the 'Lost Gods of Easter Island'