Making ‘Britain’s Whale Hunters: The Untold Story’

Britain’s Whale Hunters: The Untold Story’ reveals Britain’s deep involvement in the whaling industry right up until the mid 1960s. Antarctica became the focus of whaling companies in the early 20th century, and the epicentre of operations was the British island of South Georgia. In 60 years, 1.6 million whales were killed in Antarctica, driving the biggest whales - blue and fin whales - close to extinction. Our series looks at what drove this immense whaling effort, what it was like for the British whalers who went to Antarctica, and why scientists and politicians couldn’t bring in effective regulation until it was almost too late.

We had a few big challenges in making the series, which was overseen, and shot, by the brilliant series producer Tom Beard. Two that I was most involved in were getting ourselves all the way to South Georgia to film for a month on a relatively modest budget, and tracking down all the archival film, photographs and documents that provided first-hand material for the programmes.

We couldn’t have filmed in the whaling stations on South Georgia without the permission of the government of the islands. They helped us out enormously and we were able to join an expedition team of archaeologists from Geometria who have been conducting a laser survey of all the whaling stations on the islands. The aim is to preserve a 3D digital record of the stations in their current state. There are just too many buildings, and the conditions are too harsh, for them all to be preserved as they are.

 An image of Leith Harbour Whaling Station created from laser-scanning data collected by Geometria

An image of Leith Harbour Whaling Station created from laser-scanning data collected by Geometria

South Georgia is one of the remotest places left on the planet. If you have the right connections, you can fly to the South Pole or the North Pole, but South Georgia has no airstrip and is 900 miles east of the Falkland Islands. You can only get there by boat, and it takes about 4 days each way. Many film crews charter a boat to take them there and then act as their base, but that was way out of our BBC4 budget.

We were helped out by the kind people at G Adventures who were running one of the first cruise journeys to South Georgia last season. They put aside a 4-berth cabin, collected us in the Falkland Islands, and we travelled to South Georgia in relative luxury. We ate excellent three-course dinners and their fantastic team would put us ashore with all our filming kit to film the amazing penguin and seal-filled beaches in the northwest of the Island.

 We volunteered our ever-game presenter Adam Nicolson to give a lecture to the cruise passengers...

We volunteered our ever-game presenter Adam Nicolson to give a lecture to the cruise passengers...

Our goal was to meet up with the Pharos - the South Georgia government’s vessel - which was acting as a floating base for the Geometria laser-archaeologists. We ended up loading our 30 cases of gear into the Zodiacs after dark and making a fairly thrilling transfer between the ships in Stromness Bay, which is home to Leith Harbour - the biggest whaling station in South Georgia. The crew of the Pharos hosted us magnificently - George the Chilean chef made sure we arrived home fatter than we left - and we were put ashore each morning to explore the amazing ruins of Leith Harbour.

In the end, we not only did one of the best-value filming trips to South Georgia, but probably had one of the most comfortable as well (when we weren't exploring asbestos-riddled buildings in our full-body suits and masks).

 Our daily commute to Leith Harbour from the Pharos

Our daily commute to Leith Harbour from the Pharos

When it came to old film and photographs of whaling and the whaling stations, we were very lucky that the period we were looking at - roughly 1910 to 1965 - coincided with the commercialisation of film and cine cameras. At first it was only the managerial class of whalers who could afford the equipment. In the 1920s, the chief figure in the British whaling industry was Harold Salvesen, who was the first whaling boss to make the trip down to South Georgia, and he carried a cine-film camera with him to record what he saw. Harold's family kindly gave us access to his films which provide an amazing record of whaling in the late 1920s and 1930s.

In the later years, the whalers themselves started to buy cameras and take photos of their work and their lives in Antarctica. Many of them generously provided us photos to use and we took them all to South Georgia with us. We could often get ourselves into the same spot the photo was taken and see what had changed (and how little hadn't) in 50 years. Some of the most remarkable are Kodachrome images by John Alexander, an electrician for Salvesen & Co, and you can see more of them on the BBC website here.

 Leith Harbour in the 1950s by John Alexander - the whole whale-catcher fleet came in for maintenance over winter

Leith Harbour in the 1950s by John Alexander - the whole whale-catcher fleet came in for maintenance over winter

Leith Harbour in November 2013

Moving film was still a more expensive hobby in the 50s and 60s, but we struck gold with some colour 8mm film shot in the 1960s by Nigel Bonner, who was an inspector of the sealing industry on South Georgia in the early 1960s, and by Ian Cumming, who worked as the government dentist on the island. Both of them used their cine cameras to record family excursions and picnics amongst the penguins. But interspersed was some incredible and often grisly footage of catching and processing whales on South Georgia.

 Ian Cumming's 8mm films included this unique footage of Salvesen & Co whale-catchers being scuttled off South Georgia when they decided not to continue whaling at Leith Harbour

Ian Cumming's 8mm films included this unique footage of Salvesen & Co whale-catchers being scuttled off South Georgia when they decided not to continue whaling at Leith Harbour

Nigel has sadly passed away, and his wife Jenny generously allowed us to borrow his films and do a new transfer of his films to digital files. Ian Cumming is still alive and well in Scotland and was delighted that we could make use of films that he had proudly threaded through his projector and shown to people in the intervening five decades.

They're just a few of the many people who gave us a huge amount of assistance making this series. Whaling may have had an enormous impact on the whales of Antarctica, but it was never a major part of the British psyche: conducted on the other side of the world, out of sight and largely out of mind. But those who were involved in whaling - as whalers, scientists, regulators, or just observers - are all keen to remember why it happened and what it was like, even though they all now regret the eventual outcome.