If there’s one programme that tugs at the heartstrings this Christmas, it’s Snow Chick: a Penguin’s Tale.
It isn’t just about any old baby emperor penguin, this snow chick is the runt of the pack – born late and smaller than any of his fellow toddlers. The BBC1 documentary captures every agonising moment in those vulnerable early months when survival is down to the selflessness of the colony’s mums and dads.
It’s a wonderful story of commitment and endurance in one of the most hostile environments on the planet – and capturing that footage was no walk in the park either. In 2013, camerawoman Frederique Olivier and her assistant spent 11 months in Antarctica, filming between 14 and 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes they would film for 24 or 36 hours without a break.
But being extremely patient was by no means the biggest challenge. Series producer Philip Dalton explains what it takes to spend an Antarctic winter with a colony of penguins…
1. You need to be in tip-top shape – physically and psychologically
“Going to Antarctica is a bit like going to space. You have to go through stringent tests to see if you’re physically and mentally capable of coping. Once the boat leaves and the sea ice comes in, your fate is sealed. There’s no possible way of rescue because the sea ice is so thick. There’s no airstrip. You literally have to tough out the season and wait for the sea ice to melt and the boat to come and pick you up.”
2. You need to be invisible
“There is an Antarctic treaty that prevents people from getting too close to the colony. We had a permit to get closer but we wanted to keep our distance – we didn’t want to influence their behaviour. So we invested a lot of time and money in remote cameras.
“We had cameras disguised as lumps of snow, ice and penguins to get the penguin-perspective shots. We even had a camera designed to look like a fluffy little four-day-old chick. To keep warm, the penguins will huddle together and the chick-cam allowed us to get right into the huddle – the penguins were very accepting.”
The chick-cam befriends a chick
“The cameras had to be resilient in very low temperatures and able to cross ice and deep snow, and the batteries had to be resistant to snow. We hired a big walk-in freezer in Bristol to test them. I spent a couple of days in there, much to the bemusement of the employees watching me walk in and out with robotic penguins under my arm.”
3. You need lots and lots of layers
“Fred wore lots of merino wool layers of different thicknesses, an Antarctic suit filled with down and really good mittens to keep frostbite from her fingers. When it’s blowing very cold, you have to cover up your face entirely so there’s no exposed skin or you’ll get frostbite on your nose and cheeks. Again, it’s a bit like being an astronaut.”
4. You don’t need to be able to speak French but it helps
“We operated out of the French Antarctic base Dumont D’Urville because it had a penguin colony nearby. The overwintering population there is around 30 and they’re mainly French scientists. We chose Frederique because she had overwintered before and is half French, which helps when you’re confined to a very small area for a year.
“The scientists at the base tend to work indoors during the winter with the occasional visit outside to do tests, whereas most of Fred’s working hours are outdoors so she was exposed to the elements more than anyone else. She’s very tough. There are not many people that have got the spirit to stick it out for that length of time.”
5. You need to be able to ski
“Every morning, she and her assistant Marty would put all the camera equipment on the sledge and ski with it to the ice. Then they would pull their load – up to 100kg with all the equipment – across the ice and set up a temporary base.”
Camerawoman Frederique Olivier and her assistant Martin Passingham with their penguin-cams
6. You need to be prepared to miss Christmas… twice
“The main trip was 11 months and we did promise to get them back in time for Christmas. Normally, the snow chicks head out to sea and become independent just before Christmas but that year it didn’t happen until later. They were very excited about coming home for Christmas but realised they hadn’t got the whole story. So they extended their trip and sacrificed their Christmas for this Christmas story.
“The following October, Fred went back out to get more shots and ended up missing Christmas again.”
Snow Chick: a Penguin’s Tale will be shown on Wednesday 23rd December on BBC1 at 8.30pm