Penguins: Spy in the Huddle – meet the man behind the “penguincam”

Hidden in this colony of penguins is a remote-controlled robot in disguise - taking pictures we've never seen before


This takes surveillance TV to a whole new level of intimacy. Remotely operated animatronic penguins that waddle, swim, toboggan – and even “lay” fake eggs. Each of the penguins – and their eggs – house tiny cameras that capture penguin life with a level of detail rarely seen before. “What we have got is worth ten years of research,” says John Downer, the man behind the penguincam. “Some of it is truly revelatory.”


This isn’t exactly new territory for Downer. He’s previously employed the same technology to film tigers, bears, elephants and more recently polar bears. A total of 50 spycams were deployed among three penguin populations in Antarctica, the Falklands and Peru. “We’re there for when they come out of the sea to breed right through to when the chicks as semi-adults go back into the sea. We were with the emperors for nearly a year – it’s the longest continuous shoot of them ever made.”

Among the footage there’s much that will raise a smile – caracara birds of prey stealing the egg cams, or penguins getting amorous with the feathered models – but there are some heartbreaking moments as well. “There’s a scene where an emperor penguin finds a dead frozen chick. She tries to put it in her pouch and revive it. You just can’t watch it without being moved,” says Downer. 

Penguins: Spy in the Huddle narrated by David Tennant begins tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1

Check out some images of the penguins in the photo gallery below: