Otto Whitehead is an interesting character. Part student, scientist, photographer, intrepid traveller and someone with a deep appreciation for the wildnerness. He recently spent a year on Marion island studying macaroni and rockhopper penguins for his Masters degree at UCT. On those windswept and icy shores of the sub-antarctic island, he was able to marry his passion for nature with a burgeoning love for film. The results are pretty impressive and the reason why NHU Africa’s Chris Mason pinned him down between trips to discuss his connection to documenting nature. All images by Otto.
CM: What got you interested in filming the natural world?
OW: I’ve always had a desire to share how I feel about and see the natural world with other people, but I’ve found it incredibly hard to convey to someone why you love something without them actually experiencing it for themselves. Because Marion Island is so remote and inaccessible to most, film was the best way for me to share my experience with friends, family and strangers back in SA, and so my interest was born.
Which came first, a passion for nature or film?
Definitely a passion for nature. In the beginning I perceived film simply as a medium through which I could communicate my passion, but then it drew me deeper and deeper into its territory and I realised just how multifaceted it actually is. I’ve still got so much to learn and that excites me!
What were you doing on Marion Island?
Previously nobody knew where macaroni and rockhopper penguins foraged during the summer breeding season at Marion Island. I spent the summer putting on and taking off little devices that tell us where they go and how they dive. It’s really important that we know this information so that we can continue to monitor their foraging behaviour in the context of ecosystem changes in the Southern Ocean. My work also involved carrying out annual census and monitoring work for Oceans & Coasts and Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology.
Where are you now and what are you doing?
I just got back to the beautiful Cape after backpacking my way through Norway and Sweden, and then tomorrow I’m whizzing off again, but this time to spend a few weeks on Nightingale Island in the South Atlantic Ocean working with Northern rockhopper penguins.
Who/what have been your biggest influences in approaching filming and documenting the natural world.
Sir David Attenborough’s enthusiasm for the natural world and the world-class footage and editing of the BBC Nature crew has been hugely influential. It is because of them that I lust over nature documentaries. They illustrate the stories of individual creatures so intimately and it makes one realise that there are millions of other stories out there just waiting to be captured. They’re also at the forefront of techniques in wildlife film and I’ve been really impressed with their timelapse and macro footage in recent series.
What are some of the challenges?
Storyboarding and editing. There is such an art to this process and I’m finding it quite challenging to piece together my Marion footage, especially on my little laptop. Just another learning curve I suppose.
Where are you from?
I grew up in the humidity of Durban and then migrated to the cooler pastures of the Cape to study at UCT.
Describe the most challenging moment you faced on Marion Island?
A single moment is hard to pick out, but working in harsh weather conditions, mostly on your own, challenged me psychologically. The wind regularly gets up to 100 km/h and is often coupled with rain or ice pellets. When you have to walk all day whilst trying to work in such conditions it can get quite frustrating, but you’ve just got to keep your mind strong and envision the warm hot chocolate with rusks that you’ll have when you reach the hut.
Do you have a specific affinity for any animals in particular?
It’s quite common for scientist’s to fall in love with their study subjects, and I definitely fell head over heels in love with the macaroni and rockhopper penguins. Penguins had always been a distant dream to me, only to be seen on BBC Nature documentaries. I’ve since had the opportunity to watch them build their nests, mate and nurture their eggs. I’ve watched them peck at each other furiously as well as prune and snuggle. I’ve watched as a shell broke open and a little chick let out its first chirps. I’ve watched parents come home from a hard day’s work at sea and greet their partners with a brilliant display, shouting to the rooftops, before saying a little hello to their chicks and giving them a meal. I’ve watched the same little chicks grow and stumble around in all their cuteness, and I’ve watched an unlucky few get carried away in the beak of a skua. I’ve watched them lose their down and become penguins, penguins that will someday nurture their own eggs and feed their own chicks. I’ve watched, and I’ve experienced, and that is something I am truly grateful for, and will never forget.
Check out more of Otto’s work and travels on his blog thebenigncontinuum.blogspot.com