Main content

Trying to film penguins

Written by researcher, Ester De Roij

We needed a camera that wouldn’t change a penguin’s natural behaviour.

The penguin shoot was the second shoot for the series, and the first wild animal that we were working with. At that time it was one of the few marine species we were including in the show and that meant we had to think outside of the box to get the technology just right. For once the tech was the hard part and the rest was straightforward. We couldn’t use any cameras that were already on the market: you can’t strap any old camera with an underwater housing to a penguin and expect it to be able to fish successfully. We needed a camera that wouldn’t change a penguin’s natural behaviour. We wanted to film normal feeding and in a worst-case scenario, it may not return to feed its chick.

While designing the camera we talked for many hours with Rory Wilson of Swansea University to know exactly what would be acceptable – having studied penguins for 30+ years if anyone would know, he would. We started with the 5% rule: 5% of the animal’s body weight may be acceptable. 5% of 2.5kg is 125g.

Waterproofing was important – we had to make sure the system wasn’t positively buoyant, if it was, the animal would have to fight to keep the camera down. Finally, we had to consider its size. The most important part was the front: if it was too big and caused too much drag, it could seriously harm the penguin’s chances of being able to fish successfully. It came down to a few millimetres. Once Rory was happy with the one, we made all the others.

Creating your own bespoke camera, and having to deal with airport security, became a recurring feature of the series.

When we arrived, there certainly wasn’t a shortage of penguins – which was great news. Except for the fact that they had had their chicks early, and by the time we arrived a lot of chicks were too old. Getting the timing right for this one was critical: attaching the cameras while the chicks were very young was the only time you could reliably get the device back. When they are young the parents will be out reliably foraging for 1-3 days at a time and swap. If you wait too long, the parents might not come back and neither will your camera.

If you wait too long, the parents might not come back and neither will your camera.

As an added bonus complication, our cameras were programmed to go off at a set time in the morning, because that's when the majority of parents swap over. It will take them a few hours of paddling to get out to their fishing ground from then on. If we selected parents that weren’t definitely leaving the next morning, our cameras would be more of a ‘nest cam’ than a ‘fishing cam’.

When choosing ‘our’ parents, Rory and his co-scientist Flavio Quintana looked at the adults – how big were their stomachs (have they just come back?), how dirty were they (have they been rolling around in the dirt for 3 days?) and sometimes a rough weight test of the young chicks, which was particularly adorable.

We really didn’t make it easy on ourselves.

Rory (left) and Flavio (right) checking to see if the chick’s parents will swap over for another feeding session.
Ester holding a young chick
That is the problem with using wild animals, you can’t really do anything once its on, you just hope for the best.

Once we had the cameras on the parents all we could do was hope for the best – a successful return of the cameras with some successful footage. In one instance we had to wait 5 days for that! That is the problem with using wild animals, you can’t really do anything once its on, you just hope for the best. We tried to film some underwater footage of the penguins ourselves while waiting for the adults to return, and quickly realised how difficult this was. They were very good at sneaking past you when you weren’t looking and my, they were so fast!

Cameraman Hector Skevington-Postles trying to film penguins underwater. They were much better at it doing it themselves than we were!

We would do a daily check up on our nests, and if we were lucky all of a sudden there would be a camera-wearing penguin in the nest, full-bellied and clean. The same process would apply – picking the penguin up and with a quick but gentle jerk the tape would come off, feathers undamaged. Rory and Flavio likened it to getting your nail cut, and the penguins didn’t make any more noise than they otherwise did.

The most rewarding part of the whole project was presenting the footage to the scientists and seeing their reaction.

The most rewarding part of the whole project was presenting the footage to the scientists and seeing their reaction. In this case, we deployed 14 cameras at least 3 times and each recorded 3 hours of camera footage… so at least 126 hours’ worth to scan through. You couldn’t exactly scroll through quickly as the penguins’ fast movements meant blink and you missed an important detail. But once we’d made a collection of really cool moments, it was great seeing Rory and Flavio’s reaction to the footage. The amazement that they had seeing what the animals they study for years actually get up to, and their excitement at some of our discoveries makes all of the hard work worth it.