How did a boy from Dunfermline become an Arctic photographer
My first passion was diving, which I started at school. That led to a marine biology degree, but on graduating in 1973 I decided I didn’t want to be in what I termed “science at the sharp end”, so I cut loose and simply looked for excuses to dive.
Triton magazine [which became DIVER in 1979] was responsible for my first two jobs. My first job after leaving university was diving for freshwater pearls, and that came from a little classified ad in the summer of ‘73 that simply said: “Diver Wanted for Interesting Work in Scottish Rivers”!
Around 1975 I read a two-page article in Triton written by a guy who’d been working as a scientific diver in the Antarctic. I tracked down the address for the British Antarctic Survey, applied and in 1976 was heading south to one of its research bases on a year’s contract as diver. Best move I ever made!

What inspired you to become a wildlife cameraman
Still pictures were a way to show people what the Antarctic was like. Movies in a way were a natural progression. I got my break by already having extensive experience of working in extreme environments, in the cold topside and under water.
The Antarctic was also much less accessible to film-makers 25 years ago than it is today, yet it was familiar territory to me.
I met David Attenborough when he visited our research base in January 1981. I helped the film-crew and had my eyes opened to the business of wildlife filming.
The bottom line was that it encompassed so much of what I enjoyed – diving, photography, adventure, travel, scientific knowledge, creativity. It also seemed like a lot of fun.

How do you feel about where you’ve ended up
Wildlife camera people are in a very privileged position because we’re asked to go to lovely places, to capture the beauty and behaviour and bring it back.
The downside is the very real price to be paid socially. You need a very understanding family, because most years you will be away for six to eight months. It can be hard mentally getting the balance.

You film wildlife in the harshest environments on Earth – why the fascination
Extreme polar filming isn’t for everyone; it’s not exactly comfortable with your extremities freezing while you’re waiting for the perfect shot.
But the poles are among the greatest wildernesses left on the planet, and are home to some of the most charismatic animals.
Wildlife film-making demands a tenacity and willingness to be on your own for long periods, which suits my personality.
To witness the behaviour I want, I have to develop a high level of closeness with my subject, so I’ll camp out rather than stay in a hotel.
We spend a long time in the field; every minute on screen takes around one week’s filming on location, and shoots can last from two to 10 weekss.
And, yes, it can be hard to maintain momentum on long shoots. You have to pace yourself.

What is the most dangerous animal you’ve filmed
Walrus can be difficult and unpredictable under water. One grabbed me while I was filming in the Arctic waters north of Baffin Island. It came up from directly below without warning, and put its front flippers firmly round my upper legs.
I hit it hard on the head and luckily for me it immediately let go and swam off. That’s how they catch unwary seals, but usually they hold on to them and drown them.
It would also be hard to beat the occasion in the Antarctic when a 3m leopard seal swam up to me, opened its jaws wide in a threat display, then took the whole of the front end of my camera’s lens into its mouth. I could hear the scrape of the seal’s teeth on the lens, and looking down the viewfinder I was able to able to focus on its tonsils.
It held that position for about five seconds, then opened its jaws and swam off.

Most satisfying moments of underwater filming
The first ever time I was close to a big whale, when I did right whales in Argentina way back in 1989. This female was so friendly that she ended up pushing me through the water on the end of her rostrum. while I gently rubbed her head.
To be in the presence of a friendly 50-tonne whale and look it straight in the eye – sheer magic.

Which do you prefer – filming in the heat or in the cold
I guess I’m more “at home” in cold environments than hot ones. In Antarctica I began to learn the survival techniques needed to manage in the extremes.
After all the years I’ve had filming in cold locations, it’s satisfying that all those techniques are now second nature. I can concentrate on the filming in situations where others would be more concerned about their survival.

Which is better – filming above or under water
I like the challenges of both. Under water you need to get in close and use wide angles, because the visibility is often poor. That makes for exciting filming of big fish or mammals. But it’s often cold and frustrating because the subjects can so easily swim away from you.
Topside with long lenses needs a different kind of fieldcraft but the satisfaction is the same when you finally come away with images that show the beauty or novelty of an animal behaving naturally.

What is it about working in extreme conditions that attracts you
I guess at heart I like the challenge. There’s always been a physical element to what I’ve liked doing, a kind of edginess. Extreme conditions make for high emotions.
It’s not like I’m an adrenaline junkie, and I don’t like bullshit, but there’s a huge satisfaction in bringing back pictures from difficult situations.

Can you describe what it’s like being under water with humpback whales
The secret is to be patient, take the time to develop a relationship with the individuals, spend maybe the first couple of encounters just at the limit of vis so she gets to know you. But then if she’s inclined to friendliness, you can move in.
Eye to eye, only a couple of metres apart, you completely realise how much she’s weighing you up. Play your cards right in terms of body language and she’ll relax. Then just more patience and the chances of seeing behaviour will follow.
There’s no greater compliment an animal can pay you than to be chilled in your company, so you should be reciprocally grateful. Exciting, humbling, it’s a wonderful privilege.

What was the coldest it got during your filming
I did -35°C and 20 knots of wind at the South Pole earlier this year. That’s the equivalent of -65°C. Definitely chilly on the fingers.

Global warming – fact or fiction
Absolute fact – the patterns of weather around the world that used to be reasonably predictable from year to year are definitely getting more erratic. The melting of the sea ice in the Arctic is happening sooner, and the summers are warmer than they used to be.
The sea ice in the Arctic is a crucial habitat for several seal and whale species, and of course for the polar bear. All the ecology of the Arctic region is in fact at risk from climate change.
The fact is that we all have to be aware that we as humans are part of the total environment. For much too long now we’ve somehow become separated from that idea, particularly we adults because we get sucked into consumption, monetary value of things etc.
It’s very true about how we adults don’t inherit the world, we just borrow it from our children, and our children deserve to be raised with natural basic values being taught to them. Only then will they and the biosphere have a chance to live together.

Where have you just come back from
I’ve just returned from Greenland and Canada doing a series called Operation Iceberg for BBC Scotland [screening this autumn]. Before that in June it was Galapagos for a film about coral reef conservation.
To come before the end of the year, possibly French Polynesia and the Antarctic. Busy, busy…

Any wildlife that you still want to film
There are whales called narwhals in the Arctic – only 5m or so long, but with a 3m single tusk growing out from their head. Almost mythical creatures, unicorns of the sea. I’ve filmed them a few times but never enjoyed their company for long.
Give me half an hour in the presence of a friendly one and I’d be in heaven.
At the other end of the scale, more travelling in the islands of the South Pacific appeals. Wonderful friendly people and many unvisited islands.

Where do you travel to for holidays
I’m not one for lying on the beach, so there’s often some activity involved. Diving with my son Liam is good fun, and he’s become an excellent diver with a great sense of where he should swim to be perfectly placed in the picture!

Why did you write your new book Freeze Frame
Making films is one way of communicating, but while it’s been at the heart of my career, I’ve always seen the written word as having a permanence that moving pictures seldom do.
There’s something about the greater investment of time and effort by the reader compared to the viewer, how books have space for your imagination to reach into, while television does most of it for you.
You can convey more personal feelings and experiences in a book than you can in a film. I guess there was simply a lot that I wanted to let out. Every picture tells a story and I just let mine tell all theirs.

Ever wish you had an office-job
Aarrgghh, never! I still get a big buzz doing things that have an edge. Adrenaline is definitely my drug of choice.