The Whale and the Wildlife Man
Great white and whale sharks were the warm-up acts and the start of a learning curve for TV presenter Patrick Aryee. He talks to STEVE WEINMAN about his new Sky series Big Beasts – The Last Giants and the sperm-whale encounters that may have set his career on a new trajectory
ON ONE OF THE LAST DAYS of filming off Dominica in the Caribbean, Patrick Aryee found himself swimming alongside a sperm whale the length of a bus. “Because of where the cameraman was, I had to fin slightly further ahead of her,” he says.
“I had to put some power in and I started to overtake her.
“She then started going even faster, and I thought what, come on, and I slowed down. Then she slowed down too, and I thought, this is kind of cool.
“I remember thinking I’m a human being, she’s a whale and I can feel the consciousness between us. Our eyes were maybe 2m apart, and in the water that feels very close.
“That day was mind-blowing.”
BRISTOL IS THE CITY so many of the UK’s wildlife programme-makers call home. It’s the base for the BBC’s Natural History Unit, the maker of all those great documentaries from Life on Earth to Blue Planet 2, and it’s where TV biologists and zoologists and many divers congregate.
Londoner Patrick Aryee rolled up in Bristol 14 years ago, though with no idea of being a TV presenter – he was studying cancer biology at the university.
By the time he was on to his Masters degree he was making ends meet by working at the BBC as a researcher. A producer who also happened to be an instructor at the university dive-club pointed out that BSAC was offering a discount on training, and he enrolled.
“My first open-water dive was in Brixham, dressed in 7mil neoprene, and I’m thinking I know this was something I’d always wanted to do, but what am I doing in this ice-cold water?
“My instructor went down and there were five seconds of sheer panic, but as soon as I was down I was fine, thinking I’m in this world now; I can join this club with people doing this really cool sport.”
As it turned out, working life intruded, and apart from a few more dives in Cornwall and on a holiday in Malaysia Patrick had no time to pursue the sport. “I’d done the course so that I could go scuba-diving on holiday, but also in case opportunities arose at work,” he says.
Trouble is, they didn’t. Patrick, who is now 32, continued working in TV wildlife film-making for the next 10 years.
In 2010 some online episodes he had written and presented to accompany the David Attenborough series Madagascar caught the eye of the right producers, and he became a frontman.
Appeared in DIVER July 2018
PATRICK’S COMBINATION of deep scientific knowledge and a light-hearted approach meant that his work was in demand, and over the years he has presented programmes about animals of all sorts for the BBC and, more recently, for Sky too. But apart from specials on archerfish and octopuses, these mostly seemed to be about animals living above the waterline.
“Then one of my producers asked me: ‘If you could come up with a show, what would it be?’ And I said I’d love to make a show where I was swimming with killer whales. He said: ‘OK, swimming with big beasts kind of thing’.
“In fact the commissioners didn’t really take to it; they thought it was too under water, so we broadened it but managed to keep the underwater sequences – cage-diving with great white sharks, freediving with whales and swimming alongside a whale shark.”
The result is Big Beasts: Last of the Giants, which airs on Sky in mid-June.
It’s the sort of wildlife series that was never going to have a Blue Planet budget or ambitions, or years to spend waiting for the stars of the show to turn up.
But it meant diving at last, and Patrick grasped the opportunity with both hands. “Once you’ve got the hang of diving you’re in it, really. I didn’t need any more training initially; all I needed was to learn to use a full-face mask, which really just involves remembering to flush out the CO2. ”
The crew arrived in Simonstown in South Africa for some cage-diving, and Patrick literally got off on the wrong foot. “I was in this drysuit ready to go, and I put one foot in and stopped. I said, guys, I think something’s wrong, it feels really cold and they’re like, stop wimping out. I said, look, my foot’s full of water.
“Luckily I didn’t get all the way in. I lifted it out and there was a massive hole in the sole. It had been an ex-show suit and glued to a stand, and whoever took it off forgot to reseal it. So it got sent off to be repaired and I used a standard 7mil.
“It was quite exciting, because I got a sense of how cold the water was, which is why the sharks have to be so big. I got
used to the Guardian full-face mask and we got some great footage of a great white right next to the cage. My reactions are priceless – a lot of f-ing and blinding which they had to bleep out.”
The next task was to snorkel with whale sharks, as well as manta rays, in Ningaloo, off Australia’s west coast.
“We weren’t expecting to find the biggest of the species – the whale shark we found was about 8-9m, but when I explain to camera that they can get twice as big
I think that gives an extra sense of awe when looking at these creatures.”
What he did realise was that he was wearing the wrong sort of fins. “The production team were like yeah, it’s totally fine, we know these are good fins.” The whale sharks did their bit by staying near the surface and moving in straight lines, “but when you’re presenting for TV you have to look graceful and streamlined.
“You can be quite frantic in your movements, trying to get in position for the camera with your arms moving, and every movement looks a bit silly. I wanted my presence to mirror that of the animals.
“The crew seemed quite happy and surprised that I was going for so long, but afterwards I said, hey guys, before we start
filming with the sperm whales I’m not going in unless I have freediving fins and training of some sort.”
The sum total of this training in December was four hours spent in a Berkshire swimming pool practising breath-holds. Still, hotshot instructor Emma Farrell of Go Freediving seems to have worked wonders in the limited time.
“To go from my half-minute to 2min 45sec in a matter of half-an-hour or so was pretty cool,” says Patrick. “Emma gave me tips on breathing and finning – the one that was particularly handy was to get my feet right up when I dived, take a big swipe with my hands and just let the momentum push me down 5-10m quite quickly.
“She also taught me the Frenzel technique – we’re so used to just using the air in our chest, as opposed to the small amount in the throat, to equalise. It’s quite tricky, especially later when I was doing repeated dives, up and down very quickly.
“That was probably the only problem, but I took my time and tried to focus on what was going on with my body. And if you can’t equalise you just come back up, reset and give it another go.”
PATRICK DID SEEM to have at least one natural advantage as a freediver: “I don’t float! I have very dense bones,
I suppose, and I’ve noticed that most of my black friends don’t float either.
“Emma mentioned it as well – even when I’m holding my breath, I sink very slowly, but as soon as I expel any air I sink straight down. I find I have to mess around with my weights a lot – I don’t think I’ve got it quite right just yet.”
“Freediving as Emma explained it means being completely relaxed, floating calmly at the surface waiting to do your best. Full saturation, no stress. Then you go straight down until you’re comfortable at the depth you want to reach.
“But when you’re swimming alongside a 35,000kg animal that looks as if it’s not moving but is going at speed, it does make things a little more tricky.”
A week after his crash course, Patrick’s first open-water freediving experience was with sperm whales off Dominica.
A local fixer nicknamed the Whale Whisperer would locate the whales’ calls on his boat’s hydrophone, and contact was made on four of the six days set aside.
“First time I got into the water I could just see the bulbous head of the whale. I can’t lie, I had a slight fear of being in open ocean out of sight of the coast, and that feeling somewhere between excitement and panic, which I’ve since learnt to enjoy.
“I’d be having to fin alongside the sperm whale and then, when she dived at an angle, I’d have to go down a bit and then also go at an angle, looking sideways.
“That’s not ideal because you really just want to go as far down as you can and for as long as possible.
“But I was thinking, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, take everything in. You can get a sense of what your body can do but you have to read the animal as well. Go with the flow and if you can go deep, go deep. I think there were three or four times we got to about 15-20m.”
The freediving camera-team stayed nearer the surface to provide a sense of the respective depths of whale and diver.
“Understanding that this is a mammal that can dive to 1000m, holding its breath for up to an hour, while I can barely stay under for 30 seconds at a max 20m, puts into perspective how incredible these animals are. If we’d used scuba gear we wouldn’t have been able to get the shots we did, because they believe the bubbles disturb the sperm whales.”
“When we’d finished filming the rest of the crew jumped in. They came back and said, well, that was tiring, and I said I’ve been doing that for days for several hours at a time and yes, it is very tiring!
“But after I’d come up for the last time I just had to keep myself away from everyone else. It took me a few days to get over the experience, actually. Before that I’d just been trying to make the show, worrying that we didn’t get the shots, asking if we had enough variety, did I look good?
“Then I sat at home and just kept playing that clip and thinking wow, that’s the sort of stuff I’d watch, like the people I’d followed on Instagram.
“You can tell from my excitement that all my experiences kind of led to that moment, with the sperm whales as the pinnacle of my animal encounters, and I’m seriously excited about it coming out.”
IF BIG BEASTS has shown that Patrick Aryee can cut it filming the underwater world, he also feels it marks the stage in his career where he can decide on the projects he wants to do, whether for Sky, the BBC or anyone else who shows an interest in his ideas.
“Big Beasts was a proving ground to show that I could control myself when diving but still be as excitable in bringing the experience to the audience. Diving is the key that opens the door, and I don’t mind which door it opens as long as I get to see something different and exciting.”
A three-part marine wildlife series could now be on the cards. “Having demonstrated that I have this skill, which I think some had doubted, I’m planning to make a show that focuses further on the wonder and beauty of the underwater world. If it goes ahead it will include whales – I’d love to get in the water with humpbacks – dolphins and probably sharks.”
“I really hope that when people watch Big Beasts it will do wonders for diving.”