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Review: ‘Whale meet again,’ a talk by Doug Allen

ByElla Mercer

Jan 30, 2019
Image credit: Andrey torchuck via Flickr

Doug Allan is a wildlife photographer and cameraman best known for his breath-taking work on Blue Planet and Planet Earth. He delivered a special guest talk as part of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s (RSGS) national talks programme, ‘Inspiring People.’ With over 90 lectures across mainland Scotland in 2018-2019, the series hosts a range of professionals, from explorers to scientists to photographers, to tell their stories and provide “inspirational insights into people, places and planet” (via RSGS). Find out more information here.

“Doug Allan seems to be immune to most of the limitations that govern other humans.” – Sir David Attenborough.

“That’s 400 people now,” one of the RSGS volunteers remarked, as he continued clicking in the stream of people. From dedicated RSGS members to school pupils, the room united in a sense of excitement, awaiting our much-anticipated speaker.

After completing his degree in marine biology in 1973 at Stirling University, Allan began his underwater photography and videography career that took him from orcas in the freezing Antarctic Peninsula to humpback whales in the tropical waters of Tonga. In a little over an hour, Allan gave us a taste of his remarkable career, which spans five decades.

Whales. The giants of the ocean; most of us can only dream of catching a glimpse of one from a boat. A strong dorsal fin cutting through the waters followed by the elegant caudal fin sinking beneath the surface. However, there’s only so close you can get to them whilst on a boat, and only so much you can understand. Put perfectly by Allan, “the best way to see them is to get in the water with them”.

It was clear from the start of his talk that Allan was a story-teller. Displaying the most beautiful photographs of different whale species, the audience held their breath, letting out ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. “So, it’s pretty cool,” Allan reflected, as he touched on the beauty of eye to eye contact with the animals whilst filming. However, filming these 30-tonne mammals does not come without risk as Allan shifted his story-telling focus to expert wildlife photographer, and his former wife, Sue Flood. Whilst filming humpback whales, Flood was hit by one of the mammals’ fins, sending her reeling through the ocean and causing her to drop her camera. Swim to his wife or go for the camera? Allan made a seemingly easy choice, diving down to save the camera. Of course, the audience, in the comfort of the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre, found this thoroughly hilarious.

Discussing the evolution of whales, Allan suggested that toothed whales, such as dolphins and orcas, are more mentally flexible than their relatives, the baleen whales which includes the blue, humpback, and right whales. Toothed whales generally live in larger social groups and, over the years, Doug has captured complex social behaviours including cooperative hunting and play. Furthermore, when later asked if he had a favourite species, he revealed his soft spot for orcas, saying that “killer whales are enormously charismatic… they’re a top level carnivore, best of the lot.”

However, there is still so much unknown about the 86 different species of whales. From migration to feeding patterns, communication to health. Through working with expert marine scientists, Allan has developed a deep understanding of the scientific methods used to study these mysterious creatures.

Naturally, Allan ended his talk by raising the issue of humans and whales. Commercial whaling devastated whale populations throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s before the Commercial Whaling Moratorium was introduced in 1982 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Between 1911 and 1930, a staggering 118,159 whales were caught and killed between the South Orkney’s and South Shetland islands. Many of these whale species remain endangered today, 100 years on. Despite the status of these animals, less than a month ago Japan revealed that it would be withdrawing from the IWC to begin commercial whaling again this year. Allan described this move as “giving up the pretence of scientific whaling,” the provision that the Japanese have been using to hunt and kill whales since the regulations were introduced in 1982.

Although conservation efforts are in place against whaling, global warming and plastic pollution now pose significant threats to the maintenance of the species’ populations. With Blue Planet II doing so much to raise awareness of the impact of human activity on marine life, Allan took somewhat of a harder view, questioning “why did it take Blue Planet? … this stuff’s been in front of us for so long, why did it take a TV programme?” Thankfully, he acknowledged that he was “talking to the converted.”

Generally, our love of marine life is born from documentaries, as few of us are fortunate enough to encounter these animals in the wild. Allan and his colleagues give the gift of, what feels like, getting up close and personal with these magical creatures. They feed our curiosity and enchantment and expose us to the environmental effects we cannot see. Contributing to scientific advancement, conservation efforts, and public awareness, Allan’s 90 minute insight into his stellar career represented yet another resounding success for the RSGS ‘Inspiring People’ talk series.


Image credit: Andrey torchuck via Flickr

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