Dec 19

Dr Elizabeth WhiteIf you enjoyed Frozen Planet as much as we have here at ARKive, you’ll be pleased to hear that the series will be returning to our screens in the form of a Christmas Special, due to air in the UK on the 28 December. With some of our favourite species from the show making an appearance again, including stone-stealing Adélie penguins and adorable polar bear cubs, it looks like this special is not to be missed! Of course, being such huge fans, the team here jumped at the chance to chat to Elizabeth White who worked on the series.

Elizabeth has a degree in Zoology and a PhD in animal behaviour. She has worked for the BBC Natural History Unit for 8 years and was one of the Directors on the Frozen Planet series, specialising in filming marine, people and climate change stories.

ARKive talks to Elizabeth White:

Q: What was your role on the BBC’s Frozen Planet series?

I was Assistant Producer for ‘The Last Frontier’ and ‘On Thin Ice’, and a Director on a variety of sequences across the rest of the series. The Producer’s role is to shape the film – deciding what stories to cover, looking into logistics, budgets and planning and writing the narrative, and as Assistant Producer, you support all of that.  Directing is the fun, in the field bit!  Because of my background, which includes SCUBA diving and underwater filming, I worked on many of the marine stories – from the ice whales to killer whales, and under and around the ice in Russia and Antarctica – and also the ‘people’ films, working with many of the Inuit and Inupiat communities to tell their stories of traditional knowledge and climate change.

Beluga whale photo

Whales such as this beluga, along with bowheads and narwhal, are commonly called ice whales because their lives are intimately linked to the coming and going of the Arctic sea ice

Q: It must be hard to pick just one, but do you have a highlight from your time spent filming?

The Antarctic Peninsula was my absolute favourite place I visited during the making of the series. I went twice, onboard a small yacht called the Golden Fleece, skippered by a veteran Antarctic sailor called Jerome Poncet who has spent 40 years in the region.  The scenery there is absolutely breathtaking, waking up to icebergs, penguins, whales and giant mountain ranges every day was just fantastic. On the second trip we filmed killer whales, and just being around them day by day – and never knowing what to expect next – was absolutely the best adventure I could ever imagine.

Antarctic Peninsula photo

The scenery of the Antarctic Peninsula is absolutely breathtaking

Q: And how about any scary moments? There must have been a few!

Not too many… I had a few nights camping in the Arctic imagining the sound of polar bears crunching around my tent!  But the scariest moment for me was almost being mowed down by a cruise ship when we were coming back from Antarctica.  We were miles from anywhere on the convergence, in thick fog with this large dot on the radar coming straight for us. We changed course over and over to avoid it, but it just kept coming towards us. It was like something from a horror film as it got closer and closer on the radar and we turned and turned and held our breath waiting to see where it appeared from and then… suddenly from the gloom came the giant ship’s bow with lots of passengers looking over!  Apparently they thought we were an iceberg and came to have a look at us, but it left all of us feeling somewhat shaken!

Polar bear photo

Is that a polar bear I hear outside?

Q: What was it like being one of the only women on the team?

There were three female directors on the team, but on location it was usual to be the only female – most of our cameramen are male, most of the scientists are male and certainly the Inuit and Inupiat hunters are male. Most of the time it makes no difference at all, but there are odd moments when the differences do show up – for example when you are out on the flat, featureless sea ice and need to take a pee!  You learn not to be too ‘girlie’ – there are definitely no hair dryers when you’re camping in the Arctic and you have to accept weeks without showers. But the experiences make the ‘rough times’ insignificant. Bear in mind that 30 years ago few women got the chance to go to Antarctica, so I count myself lucky to be born at a time where women can do jobs like these.

Arctic photo

There are no home comforts when camping in the Arctic, but the experiences make everything worthwhile

Q: How was it working with the local people?
I worked a lot with Inuit and Inupiat people in Canada and Alaska. They are fascinating societies – challenging to work with at times – but I was lucky to meet some very interesting people and experience a lot of their culture. Visiting a real igloo was a highlight for me, and in Barrow Alaska they let me take part in their ‘blanket toss’ ceremony, bouncing me up into the air on the top of a walrus-skin trampoline – a fun but slightly adrenaline-pumping experience!  Some of these cultures are quite misunderstood – many still hunt marine mammals which makes them wary of Westerners who may interfere with their culture. A lot of my job was building trust prior to filming, but once they realised we were not out to attack them, they were usually delighted to share with us the beauty of their environment which they understand better than anyone.

Elizabeth White with friends

Q: The final episode of the series focuses on the changing environment in the polar regions, what’s your take on the impact that climate change is having?
It’s an unequivocal fact that the polar regions are changing – we have the satellite record, images of glacier retreat, long-term animal population studies and oral histories which clearly show the differences between now and 30, 50, 100 years ago. In many places the animals are adapting – we visited penguin colonies on the Peninsula which were once Adelies that are now crammed with gentoos, saw fur seals far further south than would have been common before.  Of course not all places are changing at the same rate – the Inuit we worked with in Canada talked about ‘unpredictability’ of their weather and their ice, whereas in Alaska the ice now is consistently thinner, earlier to melt and contains less ‘multiyear ice’ than it did 30 years ago.  The question is going to be about adaptation – how far can certain species go before they are pushed to the brink – and the impact these changes will have on the rest of the planet. 

Adélie penguin photo

The question is, how far can species adapt to their changing environment?

Gentoo penguin photo

Gentoo penguins are now found in colonies traditionally populated by Adélies


Q:  And finally, do you have a favourite species from the series?

That’s tricky! I fell in love with a polar bear the first time I saw one and penguins will always have a massive place in my heart. But I guess I would have to say killer whales – mainly because they are so smart, and so little understood, and because, on our film trips, we were contributing towards scientific understanding of them – an exciting thing for a former biologist like myself!  Behavioural and genetic evidence shows there are many different ‘ecotypes’ – potentially different species – of killer whales.  We observed 3 of these different types in Antarctica and, working together with scientists, filmed behaviours which will help contribute towards a better understanding of them. That’s pretty exciting.

Orca photo

The team filmed some incredible killer whale behaviour

If you’ve been inspired to learn more about our polar regions, don’t forget the check out ARKive’s Arctic and Antarctic eco-region pages to find out more about the species found in these extreme environments.

You can also check out the BBC’s Frozen Planet pages for more information about the series, including clips, episode guides and more behind the scenes stories from Elizabeth and her fellow team members.

Claire Lewis, ARKive Media Researcher

  • VAZ (December 20th, 2011 at 11:32 am):

    I find Elizabeth White’s interview fascinating and envy her trips and experience with killer whales in particular,a very misunderstood species. What is frightening is this question:how far can the Artic and Antartic animals adjust to the climate changes?