Book review: The Shark and the Albatross takes us behind the scenes of natural-history television

John Aitchison has been all over the world filming exotic animals in the wild, and his book well describes the astounding beauty that makes the tedium and failure worth enduring

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 8:18pm

The Shark and the Albatross

by John Aitchison

Profile Books

In today’s world where inspiration comes from two-minute videos and Instagram photos, it’s easy to forget that words, too, can take your mind to a far-flung corner of the world and leave it seared with an image of beauty and fragility.

In The Shark and the Albatross, John Aitchison, a wildlife filmmaker, tells his stories of adventure and discovery in some of the most remote and dangerous corners of the world filming exotic creatures such as polar bears, penguins, tigers and wolves.

SEE ALSO: Hong Kong filmmaker Mark Roberts on the orangutan that came too close

“We Must not Interfere. It’s our mantra, our creed as filmmakers: to document but not to touch, and sometimes that’s very hard,” Aitchison writes.

While his professionalism demands he never interferes, Aitchison reveals the torment he feels when watching dramatic, deadly battles and the sad remnants of nature trashed by human activity. While the book will appeal to nature lovers for its detailed descriptions of rare animals and their habitats, it is also an interesting look behind the scenes of a wildlife film set, capturing the tedium and logistical nightmare this work involves.

Twenty years as a filmmaker for shows such as BBC’s Frozen Planet have taken him to the Arctic and to Antarctica, up mountains and down rivers, through jungles and deserts. The rusty ships and aeroplanes of the developing world and the flea-bitten hotels and dodgy meals of rough travel are all captured and brought into the context of Aitchison’s mission to show us creatures we would not otherwise see.

“More days go by, cold days spent scanning the hills but seeing little. We have one or two close encounters with the lone grey male who is still hanging around the fringes of the Druids, but the other wolves keep their distance. Ravens, perched like black pears in a tree on the far side of the valley, show us where the pack has killed during the night. They make up for the paucity of other birds in the winter by calling in a hundred voices. One crouches with his nape ruffled and knocks like a wooden glockenspiel, his wings jerking with the effort. He is calling others to feed.”

The writer makes a rather clumsy attempt to stitch the journeys and stories together, when really there’s no need, as the accounts are strong enough to stand on their own

The scenes he describes are exactly the same ones you see on a nature show, only relying on your imagination to add the colour. The patience his job demands comes through in his writing. He slows down, savouring every detail and colour, every twitch and mannerism of the wildlife he watches. Aitchison provides 16 pages of beautiful colour photographs just in case you don’t trust your imagination.

The book also captures the humour of living rough, in tight quarters with near strangers, immersed in foreign cultures. Aitchison turns his “fixers”, those local contacts who guide international television crews and connect them with their subjects, into lively characters. “Most people charged by a tiger lose control of their bladders,” an Indian fixer tells him. “Some mahoutsmake a lot in extra tips when that happens by complaining that they will have to wash the covers on the houdah.”

Aitchison writes in a simple, straightforward way, the way you’d hear the story in a pub. While the book does not break new literary ground, it’s the kind of reading that both entertains and informs. The writer makes a rather clumsy attempt to stitch the journeys and stories together, when really there’s no need, as the accounts are strong enough to stand on their own, kept together by a unified tone and respect for nature. In subchapters he updates the reader on what happened to the endangered species he was filming.

This book provides a valuable glimpse behind the cameras of wildlife television, and it’s comforting to hear the writer’s frustration and disappointment over unsuccessful shoots, as it confirms that real action can’t be faked. This is a beautiful book that captures a world few of us have seen but that we must all cherish and protect.