DOUG ALLAN

The Award-Winning Wildlife Photographer Returns to Maidens

Gill Sherry

One of the highlights of Maidens World Ocean Day is, undoubtedly, the return of Scottish wildlife and documentary cameraman, Doug Allan. Doug has been involved with the event since its inception in 2022 and is back again this year to educate and entertain.

“I like supporting these smaller events,” says Doug, “and Maidens has been going from strength to strength. It’s great to be coming again this year.”

Doug particularly enjoys talking to the children and hopes to convey this message:

“Every little thing that you can do as individuals or as a school or in the community, all of that helps. There are problems you can see and there are what I call invisible issues. I’ll try to explain what some of those challenges are but I’ll also talk about how the children (and adults!) can help to improve matters. It’s about coaxing them to a greener way of living.”

Few people come more qualified than Doug when it comes to talking about the state of the ocean but he insists it’s not all doom and gloom.

“There are lots of positive ways to look at it. If we all did our bit, we would be helping to make things better.”

Diving was, Doug tells me, his first real passion. He was born and raised in Dunfermline and joined the local diving club during his final year of school. He went on to study marine biology but later decided not to pursue a PhD.

“I realised I wasn’t cut out to be a proper scientist. I loved the diving but I didn’t want to be an academic. What interested me was collecting the data, I’d leave the actual crunching of it to others. I decided to find marine biology expeditions where I could carry on diving but use my knowledge as a biologist to get good results and to help the scientists.”

Doug’s first job was in 1973 working with Bill Abernethy, Scotland’s last professional pearl fisherman. Then, after a year, he went to the Red Sea with a group of biologists. His big break, however, came in 1976 with the British Antarctic Survey.

“I didn’t really get into photography under water until I started going to the Red Sea. But going to the Antarctic… that was such a wonderful place to take stills both underwater and topside.”

The first contract was for a period of 18 months, and Doug signed up for another. But the sea ice arrived earlier than expected, forcing him (and six others) to remain at the base for another winter.

“It sounds terrible but I didn’t mind at all. It gave me an extra winter to get some more shots under the water. Then, at the end of that winter, I stayed on for the summer and that’s when I met David Attenborough.”

Doug recalls receiving a radio call from HMS Endurance requesting permission for a small BBC crew to come ashore and do some filming. The crew consisted of a producer, sound engineer, cameraman, and Sir David Attenborough himself.

“As diving officer… I was with them day and night for 48 hours. By the end of that time, I knew what I wanted to do next, because the cameraman was doing all the things that I wanted to do. He was diving, filming wildlife… and I think they were going to Galápagos afterwards. It was hopelessly romantic! They really sold me on it.”

Doug decided, having received advice from the producer, to concentrate on the place he knew best. In the Antarctic, he was familiar with the animals and how to work in the cold. If he was going to get into the film and photography business, the Antarctic was the best place to start. Fortuitously, the British Antarctic Survey asked him to return.

“There was no diving at the new base but there was a colony of Emperor penguins. If you want to get shots of Emperors with their chicks, you have to go in the winter because that’s when they breed. So I leapt in at the deep end and bought a 16mm camera. I contacted a BBC producer who was just starting a series on birds so I filmed for him that winter and he gave me another contract when I came back. And the rest is history.”

Filming those penguins was special. But Doug’s most memorable experience came a few years later.

“The holy grail of filming is to film something for the first time, preferably a big sexy piece of behaviour! I was lucky enough, with another cameraman, to film killer whales washing seals off ice floes in Antarctica. It was everything you could hope for… spectacular behaviour, charismatic mammals, never before filmed.

“Spending time with polar bears is also great. They’re such a charismatic, sexy animal. And to swim with big whales, particularly humpbacks… It’s a phenomenal privilege when a whale chooses to spend time with you.”

Used as he is to witnessing nature at its cruellest, Doug doesn’t get upset by what he refers to as “natural behaviour”. But distress caused by humans prompts a different reaction.

“If you come across a seal on a beach tangled in a fishing net, or you find a dead turtle… and when they do an autopsy it’s full of plastic bags, that’s when you get saddened and angry, because an animal is suffering because of what we’ve done.”

And it’s not just our negligence in relation to litter and plastic that worries Doug.

“Climate change is a big challenge with how it’s affecting our natural world. We have a responsibility as human beings to look after the animals and plants that share our planet. But we can do things differently that will make a huge, positive impact.”

I have a feeling Doug could talk forever about this subject and about the wonderful things he’s seen and filmed. But what advice does he have for other aspiring wildlife photographers?

“Just start taking photographs. Be self-critical. Look at images that impress you and ask yourself how yours could be better. There are more people trying to get into the business now than ever – you can do a degree in wildlife filming if you want – but the people who will get there are the ones with fire inside.
“The one bit of advice I would give to everybody is that once you’ve gone out for the day and taken all your pictures, go home and pick your favourites. Please don’t ask me to wait while you flick through 500 pictures looking for the best one!”

He’s laughing as he says this but I suspect he’s experienced this scenario more than once!

I end our conversation by asking him for a final word about the upcoming World Ocean Day event in Maidens.

“World Ocean Day is a great event. The fact that Maidens is making it a special weekend is a wonderful example of what you can do at a local level to promote a big idea. I would encourage anyone, whether you’re on holiday or you’re local, get yourself along to Maidens and enjoy the festival.”

For more information on Doug’s impressive career, visit www.dougallan.com and for further details on the Maidens World Ocean Day event visit www.northcarrick.com/maidens-world-ocean-day.