Could you survive 8 months of isolation?

By Tanika Cato

What’s it like to live and work in one on the world’s most remote places, removed from those you know and love?

In the second episode of the BBC Earth podcast, Dynasties cameraman Lindsay MCrae reveals how he coped with the psychological impact of isolation while filming penguins in the Antarctic.

Two Emperor penguins stand in front of a camera rig in the Antarctic
Two Emperor penguins investigate a camera rig. © Lindsay McCrae
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In 2016, wildlife cameraman Lindsay McCrae received some great news. He’d been offered the job of a lifetime: filming emperor penguins in Antarctica as part of a small team working on David Attenborough’s new BBC series Dynsasties.

As if Antarctica didn’t sound far enough away, the area where Lindsay was heading was so remote that to film there in the winter means you are locked in for a minimum of eight months with no way for people to get in – or get out. Aside from his team of three, the closest human life was on another base hundreds of kilometres away.

Lindsay remembers the moment he told his now wife Becky about this filming project. She was uneasy at first, but two weeks later, realising this was one of his dreams, she told him to go for it. As she also came from a TV background, Becky knew that whatever the conditions and difficulty of communicating they would get through it together. Before embarking on his adventure, after six years together the couple got married. For some newlyweds, being 15,000km apart would be a massive hurdle, but the McCraes were determined to work through the distance.

While completing pre-filming emergency training in Austria, Lindsay got a text message from Becky asking him to call.

“I didn’t think twice to be honest, I can’t believe I even had phone signal. I said ‘What’s up?’ and she said ‘I’m pregnant’.”

After much debate and discussion, the McCraes decided that despite Lindsay would join the Dynasties team; even though it meant missing the birth of their first child.

Lindsay McCrae films Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic
It was a lifelong dream of Lindsay's to film Emperor Penguins. © Lindsay McCrae

Antarctica, on average, is the coldest, driest, and windiest huge continent that spans 14 million sq km. At the peak of summer, the human population reaches around 4,000 – alongside an estimated 12 million penguins.

The weather becomes so unpredictable and the sea ice extends so far, planes cannot fly and ships are unable to sail.

“It did feel incredible when the last plane left and we were left all on our own, because all of a sudden, you’ve just been thrust in the most remote place on the planet. Once you’re there that’s it. There’s no getting away, no planes, you just have to accept it,” said Lindsay.

A aeroplane parked on the Antarctic ice
If you want to film during winter in Antarctica, you have to stay for a minimum of 8 months because the weather becomes so unpredictable that ships can't get in and planes can't fly. © Lindsay McCrae

To survive isolation in this environment called for patience. During his time there, a storm lasted 14 days. Bad weather in the winter can often last weeks, leaving crews stuck inside waiting for storms to pass.

Both physical and mental strength were required. “I remember my first day at -30c and I’ve never been more uncomfortable in my life. It was just cold to the bone like I can’t describe and that was only -30c it obviously got a lot colder.”

I remember my first day at -30c and I’ve never been more uncomfortable in my life"

Lindsay MCraeCameraman, Dynasties
Lindsay McCrae with a frozen moustache and beard in Antarctica
The bad weather in Antarctica can last weeks and you just have to sit inside and wait for it to pass. © Lindsay McCrae

“It’s the most beautiful place on the planet I’ve ever been to, in the summer you only really experience the whites and the blues. The sun is up 24 hours a day and it’s absolutely blinding. To really experience it, you’ve got to be there in the winter, That’s when you see the sun setting and the darkness.”

“The auroras were just mind blowing - we had greens and purples and pinks and whites, it just flew across the sky so quickly. It’s stuff you’d never imagine you’d be able see.”

The Aurora Australis above a research station
The silence is indescribable, there is no noise or light pollution down there. With no light pollution you get incredible views of the stars and the southern lights. © Lindsay McCrae

It’s stuff not many people can say they’ve ever seen, so I’ve been extremely lucky"

Lindsay MCraeCameraman, Dynasties

The first day Lindsay and the crew got onto the sea ice he was roped up filming penguins arriving when the station leader Tim received a call from Becky’s mum.

“As I got back I managed to log onto Skype and he was born,” Lindsay remembers. “He must have just been born because all I could just hear was crying. I was sat there and, yeah, it was a weird experience.”

Lindsays describes Antarctica as being one of the most beautiful places on the planet he has ever been too.

“It’s stuff not many people can say they’ve ever seen, so I’ve been extremely lucky.”

Featured image by Lindsay McCrae

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