The science and wildlife presenter talks about conserving our wild places, the potential power of technology, and the transformative impact of great nature programmes
Interview by Rebecca Swirsky
You recently presented the BBC series Galapagos. What impressed you most?
I was prepared for the Galapagos being a special place. But the total and utter lack of fear of the animals surprised me more than anything – they nonchalantly wander past so that you feel like an animal yourself. You’re given this incredible, magical glimpse of how the planet was before we began taking territory.
You spectacularly travelled underwater in a submersible in Galapagos too…
Even thinking about it sends shiver down my spine! It totally defied expectations. Just 1% of the depths of the ocean have been looked at with human eyes. We descended a thousand metres under the waves in the Bolivar canal – a huge trench that separates Ferdinand and Isabella Island – and were the first humans to set eyes on many varieties of coral and fish. We were like astronauts exploring outer space. I also scuba-dived, and I’ll never forget seeing the beautiful courtship ritual of hammerhead sharks swirling above my head. The strongest, fittest males had to wind and weave their way towards the females at the centre.
What do we need to realise when taking steps to conserve our wild places?
We need to reassess – with rather more humility – how we view ourselves alongside nature. For centuries we have set ourselves far above the animal kingdom. This has negated how important, valuable and integral each species is to the planet’s health. Undeniably, things are beginning to shift. We are beginning to understand that we are a species that is part of, and not at the top, of the pyramid, and that everything really does have its place, no matter how big, small, irritating or beautiful. This realisation will fundamentally change the way we view the planet and our place in it. Because historically we have lived as if we have the ‘right of way’ and now we are suffering the repercussions. Our success is truly linked to nature and all life is interconnected.
What was your first experience of nature, and how did it affect you?
Before moving to Ireland, I grew up in the South of France in the mountains, just north of Nice. We were hugely lucky in that we had access to a little wood behind our house. My sister and I would be out all day getting gloriously lost with our two dogs, walking for hours, making up adventures. On those woodland walks, we’d see a beautiful, diverse array of birds and butterflies and hedgehogs and spiders and snakes. I clearly remember studying a small bird and thinking how amazingly magical it was that it had a brain and a heart. I loved biology and chemistry at school and ended up studying biochemistry at university, then did a Masters in Wild Animal Biology. To me, the life-long relationship between a childhood spent in nature and a love for nature is pretty obvious.
With the world becoming increasingly assisted by artificial intelligence, can technology benefit our natural spaces?
Tech has the power to fix all of our sustainability problems on the planet. Plans are still going ahead to drill for oil in the Arctic, yet that technology could easily be used to source other sustainable ways of finding energy. Tech allows us to be dream, to be curious and creative and make things a reality, and the younger generation are giving me hope and inspiration that we can move forward. Unfortunately, greed and economics and politics can thwart that huge potential.
You’ve interviewed David Attenborough – what impact do you feel his Blue Planet series has had on conservation in the UK?
His impact is immense. Just look at social media after an episode to get an immediate idea of the responses to a series like Blue Planet – indeed, any and all of Sir David’s programmes. Blue Planet gets more viewers than The X Factor. We really shouldn’t underestimate the potential power of programme making to realign our thoughts and attitudes.
Which species has the capacity to surprise you more, animals or humans?
Animals, always! We still know so little about them and we underestimate their capacity for intelligence. I’ve recently finished making another animal behaviour programme, and we discovered such extraordinary things about their survival tactics – awesome, really. Little boxer crabs (which are tiny, about the size of a penny) collect anemones off the sea-bed. These anemones have poisonous tentacles in their claws. The crabs shake them like pom-poms to ward off fish and other predators, so they’re brilliantly protected.
You’re known for your experiences out in the wild, but how do you remedy ‘city claustrophobia’?
I live in west London, and the contrast in energy between the wild and the city is palpable. It’s never been more important to head outside and get into a green open space. After a trip to Botswana, I nearly cried getting on the Heathrow shuttle because the transition from somewhere so vast and open and full of wildlife to such an enclosed, urban space was so sharp. Nowadays you often feel anonymous in cities, which is really saddening. Rush hour is horrible. It’s sad for humans to be living that way. Luckily, I live near a big park that I walk in as much as I can, or I find a big tree to sit under and come back to myself. But not everyone has that.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE:
- COUNTRY WALK? Anywhere in the Cairngorms, at any time. Autumn, though, is particularly spectacular.
- CITY WALK? I absolutely love strolling through Rome, which is one of my favourite cities. It’s dilapidated and shabby, yet so beautiful. It helps that the food is extraordinary.
- VIEW? My family are from the Caribbean, so a white beach in Martinique, with the combination of crystal clear water, white sands and turquoise sea, is heaven.
- KIT? On cold crisp days, I wrap my favourite cashmere scarf three times around my head. A reusable water bottle is a must. Also on wildlife trips I always have a notebook and pencil.
- POST-WALK TIPPLE? A lovely glass of Argentinian red wine in front of a fire after a good long walk.