Joel Lambert wanted to learn from the animals at the top of the food chain. But instead of heading to the zoo or booking himself onto a safari, the former US Navy Seal decided to observe them on their own turf.
So he plonked a specially designed hemispherical dome in the middle of the Arctic, Zambia’s grasslands and shark-infested False Bay in South Africa, and took up residence inside.
Seeing these animals in their natural environment where they are the apex predator – where they are in their world, owning their world – is an entirely different thing. These animals are so vital and powerful and visceral that they bear no resemblance to those animals in the zoo.
Did you have much experience with large animals?
I spent a career around large, aggressive men! But from a scientific viewpoint, no. I really had no experience in this.
How close did you get?
Extremely close. In some cases these predators were attempting to get inside of the pod. I could reach out between the panels and sometimes the predators would reach in. So I could actually touch them as they were trying to break in and eat me. Which was really exciting.
Joel and his team camp out in a special pod made from the strongest jet glass
Were you ever scared?
Everybody knowns about the flight or fight reaction. There’s also a third that both animals and humans experience: freeze. For instance, if you’re punched in the face, your natural reaction is to cover your eyes, stagger backwards, you’re paralysed with indecision for several seconds thinking ‘What just happened? I’ve been violated’.
A conditioned response as opposed to a natural response is one that you’ve trained. A fighter gets pushed in the face and it doesn’t even faze him. He just moves towards the target, attacking or feinting or whatever.
So, was I ever scared? No. Did I have a fear reaction that allowed me to perform better? Yes.
What’s your top tip for someone about to go on safari, and a little anxious about it?
Study what to do if you were to encounter the big dangerous animals in Africa. So I would learn what to do if I got close to one of the big cats or had a rhino encounter.
I would learn that Cape buffalo have very poor eyesight and a very powerful sense of smell – so I would definitely stay downwind from them. If there was a big cat, the last thing I would do is run because everyone knows what cats do when something darts across their vision. Instead I would face it and back away very slowly.
I would learn the things you need to do in these situations and then I would definitely listen to your safari guide. Stay put when he tells you to stay put!
What should an anxious adventurer pack?
Your gear and your equipment are only as good as your knowledge and your skills. For example, I never really recommend anyone carries a weapon unless they know what they’re doing with it.
This is kind of boring but I would start off with clothing: proper footwear, gloves if you need them, shelter from the sun. The rule of threes is that you can survive three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food. So shelter is the most important thing and clothing is the first element of shelter. Shelter basically means protecting your flesh and blood.
Great white sharks mark their territory
What do you always pack?
I’ve got several things that I never leave the house without. I’m not going to talk about all of them because giving away my secrets gives away my advantage – but the one thing I always take with me on any field or wilderness expedition is a large fix-blade knife.
Because with a fix-blade knife I can do so many things. I now have a fighting tool to defend myself with. I’ve got something I can turn into a spear, I can use as a lever or for first aid, I can use to skin game or dig a hole or chop wood for a fire. Without a cutting edge, you are severely handicapped.
So would you recommend getting up close and personal with large predators?
I cannot recommend it strongly enough. The zoo is one thing but it’s nothing compared to seeing them in the wild, seeing them hunt and work together and look at you with dispassion – filing you away. It puts you in your place in the food chain. It brings perspective that there’s no other way to get.
Something like a safari or an Arctic cruise where you can really get close and see nature that you don’t get to experience in normal life is good for the soul. I think it’s good for humanity.
Predators Up Close with Joel Lambert begins on Sunday 29th November on Discovery at 8pm