Photographer Doug Allen on adventure, animals and activism

Doug Allen, an underwater photographer, comes to Trinity to speak about his career in the Arctic and Antarctic

Thursday evening, the Environment Society and TCD Plastic Solutions collaborated with TCDSU to bring Doug Allen, a world renowned photographer to Trinity. The ticketed event garnered a huge amount of attention on campus, resulting in the lecture hall being packed full.

Allen spoke of “two big frontiers” in the 1960’s: space and underwater, “I couldn’t go to space so I did underwater.” In university, he studied marine biology but realised he didn’t want to become a scientist “I loved science, but not all that crunching of data.” After graduation, he explored his options by going to the Red Sea with Cambridge University to study starfish for two weeks.

In 1976 Allen travelled to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey. He informed the hushed crowd that Winter lasted for around eight months and described the intense isolation, saying teams are “pretty much left on your own for eight and a half months”. Even so, it was here Allen “got into underwater photography, or pretty much photography full stop”.

Allen continued to detail his time in Antarctica where he was spending a year and a half, but ended up stranded there with six men for an extra year. Luckily for him, he was not included in the three who continued to be stuck there for an additional year. With conditions so harsh it can be difficult to get any form of transportation out and he chuckled as he remembered one man in particular who he felt most sorry for “a bloke who had just married” and was supposed to be there for three months but ended up spending three years!

This trip allowed Allen to explore more areas in his work, through which he met David Attenborough. He said Attenborough introduced him to working in a film crew. He realised his knowledge of the antarctic “was pretty uncommon” and “why I’ve specialised in cold places ever since”. From the photos shown, it must have been playing on the audience’s mind how he captured such moments. He detailed that “a lot of the success you have as a filmmaker is how you behave around animals” and “the secret to getting good footage is finding a friendly animal”.

Allen then showed breathtaking pictures of whales; it was a true privilege to hear him speak about his work with these creatures. Describing how their eyes are the size of grapefruits and when he swims alongside one and waves, he can see the eyeball swivelling to follow his hand movements. Allen continued talking enthusiastically about his time in Lancaster Sound in the Arctic. He showed his Indiana Jones side when he casually stated they “didn’t have space for safety equipment” and the chances of being rescued were slim.

Speaking about belugas he said “The secret to get them to come close is to sing… humming happy birthday down your snorkel for example”. Then they swim closer and as their eyes are on their back they’ll swim underneath you and then roll over. His next animal which he seemed to adore were the polar bears, “They’re big, they’re sexy, they can eat you”.

He jokingly tipped the audience on how fast you have to run to escape a polar bear, which is “a little bit faster than the person with you”. The laughter died down as he began speaking about plastic in the ocean and the devastating effect it is having on animals. Distressing images of a seal being strangled by plastic and a majestic whales being maimed by plastic were displayedto further emphasise his point.

“You can throw it away, but it doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else” and unfortunately somewhere else, is increasingly becoming the ocean. He was critical not of plastic but our inability to reuse and dispose of it correctly. He was adamantin saying “I never understood why there’s so much litter in the UK when its just a cultural change”. True to his upbeat and energetic spirit he noted the positives including the banning of microbeads, which were once found in many cosmetic products.

It was upsetting to be shown the statistics of great thick pieces of ice which are now melting and breaking away in large blocks. In the Arctic in Winter ice is now “only forty per cent of its thickness, and forty per cent of the area” than it was in 1976.

Allen linked these distressing facts with animals. A picture of a dead baby polar bear was shown, as he said each year their survival rates drop. Sadly, this is due to the mother not getting enough food. A direct relationship between this and climate change was drawn as Allen told us they used to get two months of hunting whereas now due to thinning ice they only get one month. The US interior department did a report in 2011 which predicted that by the middle of this century, in all our lifetimes, we will have lost two-thirds of polar bears.

Allen was not afraid to foray into the politics of climate change, highlighting opportunists, primarily governments such as Russia, Greenland and Canada, now looking to the Arctic for drilling possibilities. Allen pointed out how expensive, as well as damaging, these ventures will be and asked why we can’t focus on new possibilities like solar energy.

“What we really need is new economics… we need banking to get out of fossil fuels”. He asked students to question their banks, and ask where their money is going. “It begins with one person.”

Looking to the future he seemed positive as he “detected a fresh awareness of all kinds of issues” and was complimentary of what has been done at Trinity with trying to make our campus plastic free. The session ended with questions, and his impact was evident as questions flooded down. His answers illustrated a life of excitement and activism as he told the story of a walrus wrapping itself around his legs (luckily his arms were free and he escaped) but reminded the audience that walrus’ kill their prey by placing their lips on their head and sucking their brains out.

A raucous round of applause echoed through the theatre as he finished. An inspiring event which might have even convinced Donald Trump of climate change and our absolute need for action now, not tomorrow. It was easy to come away feeling positive, as Allen was lighthearted throughout, with tremendous humour and an avid respect for the animals he pictures.

Georgina Francis

Georgina Francis is a former Managing Editor, Life Editor and Assistant Life Editor of Trinity News.