Ever wonder what it is like to be a National Geographic photographer or filmmaker, traveling the world, experiencing exceptional adventures and witnessing spectacular, even rare, sights? I interviewed the intrepid Bertie Gregory, whose new show, Animals Up Close With Bertie Gregory, premieres September 13th on Disney+. This six-episode series — which swoops and soars in Antarctica, Botswana, Central African Republic, the Galápagos, Indonesia and Patagonia — weaves stunning footage and compelling narratives about elusive pumas, imaginative B1 killer whales, distinctive forest elephants, endangered wild dogs, intriguing seals and sea lions, Godzilla-like marine iguanas, iconic gorillas, awesome devil rays, fierce guanacos and handfuls of other creatures that are often not entirely what you might expect them to be. For insightful specifics about each episode, read Forbes’ Love To Travel? Wild About Nature? ‘Animals Up Close With Bertie Gregory’ Will Astonish You. Gregory and I continue our conversation, below, about the power of passion to fuel your dreams.
Laura Manske: As a child, your avid interest in nature directed your life’s compass.
Bertie Gregory: My family — mom, dad and three brothers — loved the ocean and water sports. From an early age, I was getting thrown into the sea! I did a lot of surfing, sailing and swimming when young. I grew up in a place called Redding, which is west of London. A couple times every year we would road-trip down to Cornwall [on England’s rugged southwestern tip, famed for its moorland and sandy beaches]. My passion started there. When you spend a lot of time outdoors in the natural world, you gain an appreciation for it. Because I was comfortable being in water — the cold and waves and rain — it made me comfortable [for my work now] in sometimes challenging conditions.
Manske: You earned a university degree in zoology. How did your obsession for animals transform into a photography career?
Gregory: When I was a teenager, I realized that if I took pictures of wild animals, it was a great way to get other people excited about the animals that I was excited about. I entered wildlife photography competitions and was lucky enough to win a couple. At the awards ceremony for one of them, I met Steve Winter, who is a legendary National Geographic magazine wildlife photographer. It was right place right time. A Willy Wonka Golden Ticket moment! Steve was looking for a new assistant at the event. I said the right things. He offered me a job. I worked for him for two years. We went all over the world for his assignments. That was my gateway into the National Geographic family, for which I have been working ten years.
Manske: As a travel journalist, savoring new places is like oxygen for me, a life force. I know you understand that. Travel is an intrinsic part of your life.
Gregory: People’s definitions of travel vary, right? A lot of my friends who aren’t in the wildlife film community, they travel with a backpack and hop between different places quickly. I don’t enjoy that at all. I like going to one place and getting to know every corner of it. That is the best way to prepare to film wildlife. That is what makes me tick. I love new experiences and really like challenges.
Manske: I’ve often said that new destinations excite me, yet it is the people whom I meet that make the journeys extra special.
Gregory: Totally. One of the best parts of filming wildlife? Not only do you get to hang out with animals, but also with very interesting people, crew, guides, scientists, naturalists. Everywhere we go, we meet fascinating local people. Always a pleasure.
Manske: In your work, there are often local unsung heroes — conservationists, environmental advocates, anti-poaching rangers.
Gregory: For the Elephant Quest episode, we traveled to the Central African Republic, part of the Congo Basin, which is a country that I never thought I’d get a chance to go to. It is full of extraordinary jungle. When most people think of elephants, they think of savannah elephants, the species that live in the big open plains. Forest elephants live in thick jungle. They are challenging to film because they sort of bump into each other, often reacting aggressively. On top of that, elephant ivory tusks are highly prized on the black market. Forest elephants have dense tusks, so they have been heavily poached. These are normally long-lived animals with strong family connections. Many have seen their family members shot by poachers. So they dislike people. We worked with an amazing tracker, whose family has lived in the forest for generations. His knowledge — helping us to navigate the jungle and advising how to stay safe around the forest elephants — was critical to our success. What I love about the format of this series is not only do we get to shine light on animals, but also get to shine light on people.
Manske: What is the most dangerous animal you’ve ever encountered?
Gregory: Humans are far more dangerous than wild animals.
Manske: How many countries have you been to?
Gregory: I don’t count. Travel is a key part of my job, yet for me it is all about the animals. I’m more focused on keeping count of which animals and animal behaviors that I’ve seen.
Manske: What destination do you most want to visit for the first time?
Gregory: It’s funny. For example, some people say things like: ‘I’ve been to India, but I haven’t been to France.’ They talk in terms of whole countries. That is interesting to me, because countries are enormous. Just because you’ve been to one part of a country doesn’t mean that you’ve completed it. It feels very strange to me. One of my most favorite places is Antarctica. Although I have been fortunate to travel there several times, I haven’t scratched the surface of the endless number of places that are there. That is why it keeps drawing me back. It is a very challenging environment to operate in, so it hasn’t been extensively explored like other places. I feel like an explorer when I am there, because I know that [my film crew] might be the only people who have ever spent an extended period of time in a particular spot or bay. That is exciting! Therefore, by hanging out there and being able to tough out the conditions and interpret animal behavior, I might see something for the first time. Therefore, Antarctica is the destination that I want to visit for the first time — even though I’ve been there before.
Manske: All new episodes include the determination of predator to find food. Predator vs. prey — that is real life. As much as some viewers might be jolted or squeamish or sad about watching a kill, the predator has to eat, has to feed its family, too. What balance do you try to achieve in filming these scenes?
Gregory: Yes, it’s important to know that nature, just as with humans, can be brutal — and difficult to watch. We often include hunts and predation, because those are often the most dramatic scenes in the animals’ lives. We definitely do not want to go too much into the blood and gore. That is why if you watch the scenes, we are careful about which parts are shown. Usually as soon as the animals have made contact with each other, our scene ends. What we’re trying to do is celebrate either the prey’s ability to avoid the predator or the predator’s athletic ability to catch the prey. It is about documenting and displaying the intelligence of animals.
Manske: New advanced equipment enables you to film scenes that were unattainable not long ago, such as the rebreather.
Gregory: For the Indonesia and Galápagos episodes, we used a rebreather, basically a fancy plastic bag that you wear on your back. Unlike scuba-diving equipment, in which when you breathe out it makes bubbles, the rebreather takes your carbon dioxide bubbles, sending them into a scrubber that removes the carbon dioxide from your breath. There’s also a little tank that adds oxygen. So you’re breathing the same breath over and over again with the carbon dioxide removed and oxygen added. This means that not only are you not making any noise or bubbles, which can spook a lot of animals, you can become accepted by the marine animals as part of the environment. Because you are recycling your own air, you are more efficient in your use of gas and can stay underwater much longer. Sometimes in the Devil Ray Islands, individual dives would be over three hours long. [We were] able to get closer to animals than we otherwise would. In wildlife films, time is your best friend if you’ve got it. The more time you spend waiting and filming, the greater the opportunity that something amazing can happen.
Manske: The night-vision technology in the Elephant Quest episode is truly eye-opening.
Gregory: We used a thermal-imaging camera, which had been developed for the military. It allows you to see into pitch darkness. With the elephants, we were able to see really interesting behavior of secretive animals that live around the elephants at night. We could also see patterns of blood vessels in the ears of the elephants. Their blood vessel patterns are unique. Scientists are now using thermal-imaging cameras to identify individual elephants by looking at these patterns. You can see how their circulatory system works in their ears, too. That is significant, because elephants are very large animals that can get very hot. They can’t dump body heat easily, so they [fan] their ears to [release] body heat. It is how they keep cool in the hot Congo jungle.
Manske: Your ambitious filming trips often require weeks away from home.
Gregory: As much as a lot of people think that we prance around filming animals, having a lovely time, most [of our days involve] overcoming challenging logistics. In Antarctica, we spent a month on a 75-foot [steel-hulled] sailboat, Australis, which was packed with camera gear and food. We sort of ate our way out as the trip progressed, gaining more living space. We have to be entirely self-sufficient. If camera equipment breaks, we can’t get FedEx to send anything. We bring our spare cables and cameras, which are being used in [demanding] environments. Sometimes they don’t make it. I’m quoting Top Gun: Maverick — ‘Time is your greatest adversary.’ That is exactly right. Time is everything. Animals are not always doing interesting things. We often wait for stars to align. You’ve got to be in the right place. The weather has to cooperate. With more time, we have a better chance of everything coming together.
Manske: Complex efforts go into planning and execution of each episode. Hundreds of details.
Gregory: I have great support from National Geographic. My name is in the title of the series, because I am the host. Yet a host gets far too much credit. I am a small cog in a large machine. As well as getting to hang out with animals, which is why I love my job, I also love to hang out with cool people. That’s a highlight! I live in Bristol, England, location of Wildstar Films [a multiple award-winning production company that has worked on many stellar documentary series and wildlife feature films]. It also has a huge team of producers, editors, logistics people. The team work is awesome.
Manske: What is your personal motto?
Gregory: Tough question! One of my friends, she has a great phrase for whenever I’ve talked with her about having a difficult time. She always says: ‘Try harder.’ I like that. Some things you can’t overcome by trying harder, but a lot of things you can. Often, when I [and my team are] on very challenging shoots, I think about her [advice]. Okay, how can we try harder here? Animals and the weather don’t read a script. Mother Nature might deny you some things that you want to film or follow, yet I have learned that if you are passionate and persistent, she will gift you with something else, often beyond your wildest dreams. Everyone thinks that you need patience [utmost] to be a wildlife filmmaker. I disagree. Passion and persistence are far more important.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.