JOHN Aitchison is telling a hair-raising story about the time a hungry polar bear wanted to eat him. He was filming in the remote archipelago of Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic at the time.
"This one could clearly smell me," he says. "The bear swam to the island and climbed out. My friend Steinar had a pair of binoculars and watched the bear approaching the hide where I was. He said: 'You have to get out now.'"
Grabbing his kit, the Scottish-based wildlife cameraman and photographer made a run for it. "There was a cabin nearby and we were able to watch from there what the bear did next," he says. "It went straight to the hide and stuck its nose through the zip at the back, putting its head right inside to have a look. Then the bear stood on its hind legs and put its entire weight on top of the hide which folded like a paper box. It was completely flattened."
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Having almost become a tasty snack for a peckish predator, most mere mortals would have got on the next plane home. Aitchison, who has filmed big cats in Kenya's Masai Mara and captured the geological wonders of Yellowstone National Park, wasn't fazed.
"The hide's poles were bent but I straightened them out and was back the next day filming eider ducks," he says. "The bear did return but never got quite as close."
The 49-year-old, whose television credits include BBC Scotland's hit show Hebrides: Islands on the Edge as well as Springwatch and Frozen Planet, has a raft of fascinating tales like this in his book The Shark and the Albatross: Travels with a Camera to the Ends of the Earth, published this month.
"I have been filming for about 20 years," he says. "It struck me that I was missing the chance to tell what happens behind the scenes and also give a wider picture of what the animals' lives are like beyond the particular behaviour television wants to show."
Equally, he is keen to share a thought-provoking message about conservation. The title of the book comes from Aitchison's time spent filming tiger sharks as they attempted to catch young albatrosses leaving an island in the French Frigate Shoals of the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
"The sequence in the programme lasts four or five minutes and is entirely about that one event: some of the albatrosses escape, some don't," he says. "But there is a far broader story than that. The albatrosses are struggling because they fish out plastic rubbish from the sea and feed it to their chicks thinking it is food.
"Many of the chicks don't even get to leave the island because they have eaten this rubbish. Meanwhile, the sharks are being hunted for their fins and are in deep trouble as well.
"The choice when I was filming that programme was apparently: do we like sharks or do we like albatrosses? People would have either empathised with the predator or the prey. But that's the wrong question. The thing we should be asking ourselves is: do we want sharks and albatrosses or do we actually want neither? We have to either be on nature's side – or not."
While Aitchison grew up in Portsmouth, he has always had strong ties to Scotland through his Glasgow-born father Brian, a navy engineer. His mother Elizabeth, a florist, loved natural history and took him on walks to see plants and birds.
As a youngster, Aitchison saved up coins in a jam jar to buy his first pair of binoculars. Many a happy childhood evening was spent mesmerised by the adventures of Sir David Attenborough, whose nature documentation he credits with helping further stoke the flames for his own love of wildlife.
"I remember one programme where David was in Costa Rica and opened up a leaf that had been folded in two like a little tent," he recalls. "He looked inside and along the middle of the leaf was a row of little white bats hanging upside down that looked like cotton wool."
Captivated, Aitchison fancied he would quite like to see these creatures – called tent-making bats – up close for himself. It was then that a thunderbolt of realisation struck. "I thought: 'Hang on, there must be someone there filming him.'"
Aitchison, who is married to fellow filmmaker Mary-Lou and has three children, has since garnered his own set of enthralling experiences. He recounts a brilliant anecdote about a group of Emperor penguins in the Ross Sea.
As the crew was setting up camp, flash mobs of curious penguins began to arrive. They were, recalls Aitchison with a chuckle, particularly fond of the divers' air bottles.
"They seemed very interested in upright shapes because where they live the only upright shapes are other penguins," he says. "All of us were mistaken for penguins at some point. They would just walk over and hang out with you, standing around with what they thought were very big other penguins.
"The divers' air bottles look exactly like penguins in shape and colour, curved and then pale on the front. They looked, I think, to the penguins like another rather fat penguin. They would often come to the camp and it was lovely having them there because they are gentle, interesting birds.
"The only problem was they weren't very good at negotiating guy ropes. We were camping on the frozen sea and lying in our tents would hear the scrunching sound of the penguins' feet on the ice, followed by a massive twang of the guy ropes as they fell over. It happened time after time – they just didn't seem to get it."
Not every animal is as gregarious. Some were notoriously camera-shy such as the lynx that Aitchison tried to film in Yukon Territory, Canada. "Patience is a funny thing and I think people have different levels of tolerance for waiting," he says. "I'm not sure I do for everything in life, but I have lots of patience when it comes to waiting for animals.
"That is partly because there are other interesting things to see in most places. It is also partly because I'm interested in the process of filming. A month's waiting isn't a big deal for me. I'm quite happy to do that even if we don't see a great deal of the animal."
While he admits such instances can be frustrating, Aitchison insists it is never dull. "On the occasion with the lynx it was very cold but beautiful, with exquisite ice shapes such as little star and flower-shaped crystals one morning on the tip of every pine needle through the forest.
"You get tracks in the snow too and so, even though you might not be seeing that many animals, you can tell what is there from the footprints."
Aitchison, who lives in the west of Scotland, professes that one of the nicest things is being trusted by the creatures he encounters. "As a human, almost anywhere you go, you have an effect just by being there," he says. "You see a bird or fox through the window, but then go outside and it flies or runs away.
"If you go somewhere that the animals don't know to fear people, it is a joy because you can look at them without their behaviour changing. That is wonderful for filming, but is also a trust that feels very special."
He had one such magical moment with a wandering albatross nesting on the sub-Antarctic Bird Island in the South Atlantic. "If you are sitting there, near to where they're nesting, you can pass them tussock grass stems and they will take them from you very gently and tuck them into their nest," he says.
"If you sit very still and they are wanting to preen – as they often do to their mates around the face – they will do your eyebrows with their long, sharp beaks. I've been so lucky to have many exciting experiences like that."
The Shark and the Albatross: Travels with a Camera to the Ends of the Earth by John Aitchison is published by Profile Books, priced £17.99.