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On Board With: Doug Allan, Arctic Photographer

Shooting photos in frigid seas.

October 16, 2012
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Doug Allan has been diving under the ice and taking spectacular pictures of wildlife in frigid seas since 1976. We caught up with the photographer and author of Freeze Frame.

Most people are content to view penguins and polar bears at the zoo. What compelled you to get face to face with them on ice or in frigid water?
I followed my heart more than my head (more than other people’s heads anyway), and it took me to the Antarctic. Then from there, the North was always in the cards. Who wouldn’t grab the chance to live in the world’s most remote and wonderful places, where wild things are?

You started as an Antarctic research diver? How does one land that job?
My first passion was diving, which I started at school. That took me on 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 turned down a couple of PhD offers and simply began looking around for excuses to dive. In 1975 I read an article in a dive mag written by someone who’d just been a scientific diver in the Antarctic. That did sound excitingly different, so I tracked down the address for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), applied to it, and by 1976 was heading south to one of its research bases on a year’s contract as a diver.

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Did shooting pictures and film change your perspective of these waters?
My interest in photography started simply because I wanted to show people what it was like in places that were exciting and new to me. It’s not always great to see everything down the lens of a camera; I try to step back and simply look sometimes, but there’s no doubt that photography, and documentary filmmaking in particular, gives you opportunities to see a bigger picture. Whales, seals and fish live in the sea — you have to be in there with them to come close to appreciating them and their environment.

What challenges do you face shooting in extreme temperatures?
There’s definitely a sliding scale of difficulties as you slip down through the temperatures. For myself, well, I actually think minus 15 C [minus 59 F] or so is the perfect temp for working. It’s dry cold, inspiring rather than a challenge; even if it’s windy, you won’t be too bothered by frostbite.

At minus 15 to minus 25 [minus 77 F] — now this is entering the chilly zone. Some lenses begin to stiffen as their lube grease thickens; battery life is certainly shortened. Frostbitten cheeks, nose or ears are a real possibility; be aware of the signs. At minus 25 to 35 [minus 95 F] — lenses should be prepped with special low-temp grease; otherwise the zoom and focus will lock solid. Cover the camera body with an insulated windproof cover and keep it in standby. Frostbite happens real fast, especially if it’s windy.

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At minus 35 to minus 45 [minus 113 F] — be realistic — you probably can’t be as creative as you might want to be. Just be happy to get any shot! The margins of safety are small, the margins of comfort almost nonexistent. Sometimes it’s a matter of just how much pain you are prepared to put up with. At minus 45 and below — can we not wait until a better day?

Added to the degree of difficulty is trying to shoot wild animals, some dangerous. You’ve had some close encounters?
A walrus once grabbed me while I was snorkeling off the ice edge in the Canadian Arctic. He came up from right below me without warning, hugged my thighs with his flippers just as they do when catching seals in the same way. I looked down, hit his head with my fist; he let go and I swam back to the solid ice. Took less time to happen than it has done for you to read this. Now if he’d held on and taken me down … well, no more Doug, I guess.

How do you keep your orientation diving under the ice or in a glacial lake?
Dives under ice are almost always with a safety line from the diver back to the hole and to the surface. So that will always guide you back. It may be gloomy under the ice but it’s usually clear, so that dive hole is visible from a distance as a reference point, though if the underside of the ice is rough and lumpy, you might have to drop down deep to be able to look up and see it. Under ice is something like diving in a cave: You need sensible safety margins on your air supply and to take your time. Dive the same hole often enough, and you’ll come to recognize the landmarks under water just like you would on the top.

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What do you hope people — most of whom will never see these places in person — take away from your work?
It’s ironic that what most folks have taken away from wildlife films generally is a desire to go see these places for themselves. And it’s the sheer numbers of travelers these days who are bringing real pressures on the very habitats that are so precious. But it also still holds true that you can’t expect people to care for what they don’t understand. So I’d hope that they take away a deeper awareness of the big picture, a realization that we as a species are a part of the planet, not its controllers. We ought to live in balance with it, not at the expense of it.

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