BBC Earth

Elizabeth White

Location Stories

Elizabeth White

Animals living on remote islands are often quite naïve, because they’re not used to encountering humans. This was a benefit in filming Planet Earth II – the island animals were often quite relaxed around humans. Some, like the penguins, would waddle up to the camera and have a little nose!

While filming Frozen Planet, I worked with Antarctic yacht skipper, Jerome Poncet, who has over 40 years of experience visiting remote parts of Antarctica. When quizzing him about amazing places, he mentioned the island of Zavodovski – an active volcano that’s home to the world’s largest penguin colony. He said it was incredible, but people I spoke to who’d visited the island said that it’s a difficult place to access. The island is surrounded by rough ocean, and 30-foot cliffs.

The whole trip took more than a year of planning. We had to be entirely self-sufficient as there’s nobody down there to rescue you if it all goes wrong. It was the shoot I was most excited by, and absolutely the most terrified by. Six months in advance I’d wake up in the night thinking ‘what do we do if somebody slips and breaks a leg?’

It was a rough seven-day crossing to get there. On the final morning we saw an ominous volcanic plume on the landscape and I remember so clearly, I had a deep knot in my stomach. There was an awful lot of uncertainty – we knew that the sea around the island would be rough and there was no guarantee that we’d be able to land – but we were so fortunate. We arrived on a calm day and within 24 hours we were ashore, with all our kit. Literally the next day a storm came in and the boat had to retreat to the other side of the island. It was a week before the tender could come in for a resupply.

The only thing that really went wrong happened three days in. A huge wave came in over the cliff, and doused one of our cameras with water. We were seven days from the Falklands, there was no chance of us getting another camera so we were trying to dry the camera with heat packs and the cameraman was sleeping with it in his sleeping bag trying to warm it up. Eventually the seas calmed down and we were able to get the camera across to the boat and dry it out above the stove. Remarkably, it sprang to life and we were able to finish filming the sequence!

Throughout the trip there was a worry about getting off the island. We gave ourselves a window of three days, but the swell was too big. On the final afternoon – just as another storm was coming in – we managed to get ourselves and all the camping and filming equipment back down the cliff and on to the boat. It was incredible.

There’s a story in the Galapagos that I can’t wait for people to see. It’s the tale of hatchling marine iguanas that emerge from their eggs buried in the sand and have to cross the beach to reach the colony down by the sea. As they make their journey they are hunted by Galapagos racer snakes, that emerge from the rocks like a Medusa's head – all slithering and racing to capture the hatchling. They catch it, wrap around it and swallow it whole. I’ve never seen anything like it… it’s like something from a horror film! I don’t have a phobia of snakes, but I spent half the shoot with my hands in front of my eyes willing the poor hatchlings to escape! Thankfully some did make it to the sea.