The ice beneath Didier Noirot’s feet creaked with uncertainty. Somewhere in the distance was a small area of open water that would give him access to a rarely seen world beneath the ice. Nervous? “Of course it’s risky but what in life that’s enjoyable isn’t.”
The cameraman is talking about the daily trek he and other members of the Frozen Planet film crew made across four kilometres of unstable sea ice to film Emperor penguins for this week’s instalment of polar awe.
Red flags sunk deep into the ice marked the route painstakingly carved out by the team to the ice hole where the penguins could be observed.
“It took us two days to make the road,” says Didier, who was tutored in underwater film-making by the legendary Jacques Cousteau. “The sea ice is about two feet thick, but it is not flat because storms cause the plates of ice to move around and when you have a covering of snow nothing can tell you the thickness of the ice. That’s where the flags are important. So, yes, it is risky.”
Though Didier dived through the ice hole to film the penguins hunting, the krill they were feeding on were too deep, beyond his diving range. “Sometimes they might come up to a depth of 30 or 40 metres where we could film them, but not this time.”
Instead there was much interaction back at the camp, pitched on the edge of the colony of 15,000 Emperor penguins. “Of that group about 200 of them were very curious and would come into camp to see what we were doing,” says Didier. “Even when you were trying to sleep, they were right next to the tent ‘singing’ to each other. It’s very loud but not very melodic!”
The film crew spent 24 days between shoreline camp and ice hole filming the penguins, though for three successive days snow storms meant they were confined to their tents. “It’s OK. You talk to your friends, write letters, clean your equipment. There’s always plenty to do.”
Didier, who’s previously worked on both Blue Planet and Planet Earth, admits he has a soft spot for the Emperor penguin. “Apart from the monkeys, they are the animals closest to man,” a contention that’s qualified by the punch line. “They stand up, they don’t fly and they all wear a tuxedo.”
Frozen Planet airs tonight at 9pm on BBC1 and BBC1 HD.