My Penguin Year

Lindsay McCrae

Hodder & Stoughton, £20

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Around this time last year, there was a flurry of debate about whether a camera crew on a BBC wildlife documentary should have broken the “golden rule” of non-intervention by assisting penguins trapped in a gully.

That incident is a small but significant part of cameraman Lindsay McCrae’s account of the making of the film, for which he spent 11 months at an Antarctic research station, away from his new wife and missing the birth of his son, to fulfil a lifelong dream.

Growing up on the edge of the Lake District National Park, McCrae had set his heart on being a wildlife cameraman at the age of eight. When he was 14, he wrote to Springwatch, telling them about a family of badgers he’d been observing. To his surprise they wrote back and even made a short film about him, beginning a relationship with the BBC’s Natural History Unit that culminated in the offer of his dream assignment: to go to Antarctica to film the breeding cycle of emperor penguins. The hitch was that he would be there for nearly a year, just after he and his girlfriend Becky had bought a house together. It was an agonising decision for them, but the chance for the penguin-mad McCrae to fulfil a lifelong dream won out.

Those who read the book and see the resulting documentary will probably agree that it was a sacrifice worth making. My Penguin Year is an immersive insight into the life of a wildlife filmmaker and the challenges of surviving in the harshest, most unforgiving environment on Earth. McCrae, his two colleagues and nine German staff shelter in the Neumayer III Research Station, an incredibly well-equipped, well-stocked, safety-conscious establishment “like a ship on stilts”, from storms so fierce that even stepping a few metres from the front door is to risk never coming back.

The penguins’ ability to survive and reproduce in such conditions is a constant source of wonderment to McCrae. The birds take up residence on the ice sheets every year to breed, the females then leaving for two months to replenish their body weight while 5,000 males nurse the eggs on their feet, stoically enduring whatever the weather can throw at them. McCrae captured behaviour never documented before, like thousands of emperor penguins forming a huddle against the wind, and his fascination with the creatures developed into a real empathy. After one spring storm leaves the ice littered with dead chicks, he and his colleagues agree to intervene by fashioning a ramp which will provide trapped penguins with an escape route from a gully. Controversial it may have been, but having followed McCrae’s story this far, you wouldn’t expect or want them to do anything different.

But McCrae’s writing, as evocative as it is, in no way prepares you for the footage he shot, and only after watching the documentary, part of the Dynasties series available on the iPlayer for another five months, can you appreciate the beautiful and terrifying majesty of the surroundings.