Interview: Steve Backshall
How It Works: Tell us about Deadly 60.
Steve Backshall: People are inherently fascinated by animals considered to be deadly. My take on that would be that actually those animals are of little or no danger to people specifically around the world. Take sharks, for example: in 2002 one person worldwide was killed by a shark. You have more chance of being killed by a soft drinks machine falling on you than of being killed by a shark. That’s absolutely, statistically true. You’re thousands of times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be killed by a shark, but still people have this fascination with creatures that they consider to be deadly to us.
My message is that there is no reason to be scared of wild animals. Wild animals are exciting, interesting, fascinating. They are of no danger to us. What I think is exciting is the way that predators interact with the animals that live in their environment, the things they feed on. So, to me, the mantis shrimp catching other invertebrates on the sea floor is just as exciting as a Bengal tiger catching a Sambar deer in India. Every single creature has its own exciting biology, and those are the things I want to focus on. We’re about to start filming our third series. It’s gone all the way around the world and seems to be doing really, really well.
HIW: When selecting creatures for the Deadly 60, some perhaps stand out as obvious. Which scary creatures didn’t make it on to the show?
SB: Well, there are none really. We’ve finished series two, and we’re on to series three so there will be 180 creatures by the time we’re done – plus there are endless numbers of animals that we filmed as incidentals. Every single animal, every single predator is, I think, in its own right perfect at doing their job of catching that particular prey source. If they weren’t then basically evolution would have got rid of them by now [laughs]. To me, a tiger beetle scuttling around catching tiny flies has just as much right to be on the list as a great white shark does.
HIW: How have the Deadly Days Out been received so far and what was your ambition behind going out on the road?
SB: So far, most of the programmes I’ve done have been in exotic locations from around the world. And sure that’s very exciting for an audience as they can look at that and think, ‘Oh wow, one day I’d like to do that.’
What I think is really important is that people realise what exciting adventures and wild animals we have right here in the UK, on our own doorstep. And it’s really important for me to get out there and spread the message that all you have to do is go outside, because right here in the UK we have dazzling birds of prey – some of the most exciting birds of prey you’ll find anywhere in the world. The fastest bird in the world is found right here in the UK.
We have dazzling marine life, but also even if you just turn over the logs in your back garden you’ll find exciting invertebrates that you probably never even knew existed. What I want to do is grab people by the lapels, shake them and say ‘life is about so much more than sitting inside in front of the television. All you have to do is get outside, experiment, and enjoy it.
HIW: You have been fortunate enough to visit a wealth of amazing places, which location is still on your ‘to visit’ list and which animals would you hope to encounter there?
SB: Antarctica is the place that I’ve been trying to get to since I started in this job. It’s very expensive to go there and the kind of things I do tend to be done on a shoestring and Antarctica has just not been quite within our budget. I will keep on pressing until it happens. There’s just so much that is exciting in Antarctica that I’m desperate to see – leopard seals, whales, emperor penguins – it’s a dazzling location.
HIW: What’s the most inhospitable environment you’ve ever visited?
SB: I don’t enjoy caving at all I have to say. We’ve done a lot of exploratory cave programmes – you know, opening up new cave passages that people have never been into before. It’s obviously exciting because you are genuinely exploring and you are going into places that have never seen light before – and that has its own excitement – but at the same time I’m a person of wide-open spaces and big views. Being claustrophobic and being dripped on and wet, and having trench foot… it’s awful, I hate caving.
As for other interesting environments I do a lot of mountaineering, I have been up 8,000-metre mountains, I have been to the Arctic Circle, and I have crossed deserts. Really, as long as you take all the right precautions and you’re sensible, they are all survivable and they’re all incredibly exciting, but caves? I think I will leave those.
HIW: What has been the hairiest moment while out on an escapade?
SB: Well, there was the moment a few years back when I was filming humpback whales in Alaska and a pod of about 15 humpback whales came rushing up to the surface swallowing huge shoals of herring with my sea kayak right in the middle of them. I honestly – no joke – nearly got swallowed. That was pretty freaky, but watching the footage back and seeing these 15 whales – 30 tons each one of them – come racing towards my kayak was quite a trip.
HIW: Please tell us about Bruiser, the tracker dog who accompanied you on your Lost Lands trips. He is very popular in the How It Works office.
SB: Yes, he was brilliant. Bruiser’s been trained to use his nose and the thing that really makes him such a great tool is that he absolutely loves his ball. Just for the pure pleasure of being able to play with his ball for a couple of minutes, he will work all day long. He just loves his job. He’s been trained to recognise the scent of cat scats, from big cats – tigers, jaguars, leopards – right down to the smallest of the field. He just scuttles around, and finds an incongruous-looking little piece of mud, then you go through it, DNA analyse it and you find out it’s from one of the rarest cat species on the planet – it really is just awesome.
He was brilliant, he was really good fun to work with. The only problem is he is a lot less capable of regulating his temperature than we were, and in 38-degree heat and 95 per cent humidity he did sometimes suffer and we found that we’d often have to say, ‘Right, we’ll need to find a river for Bruiser pretty soon otherwise he’s going to cark it!’
HIW: Whose work in the field of the natural world has most inspired you?
SB: I think just about everyone who works in my field is inspirational. Everyone who does the sort of things that I do has made phenomenal sacrifices to be where they are and to be doing what they’re doing – and I know that more than anyone. So to look around me and to see people like Simon King, like Chris Packham, like Nick Baker throwing themselves into it with absolute passion is always inspiring to me.
I have to say, though, that Alan Rabinowitz, who I worked with on Lost Land Of The Tiger, who has devoted his entire life to saving tigers despite the fact that he’s terminally ill, is the most inspirational person I’ve ever met. He was capable of reducing a room full of hardcore, gnarly scientists to tears within minutes; he is absolutely incredible.
HIW: Which programme do you have the fondest memories of?
SB: Do you know what, just every single day I absolutely treasure. I am so lucky that I can go away to the most exotic parts of the world to climb mountains, cross deserts and do all kinds of crazy things, but then I can come home and go out kayaking down the Thames and see natural wonders.
The fact that I’ve thrown myself into this life so much has meant that my eyes are open, my ears are open and every second of every day is that much more blessed because I’m aware of the natural world around me and all the little dramas that are unfolding in the trees and at the riverside and it’s just turned my life into a magical story where every day has something exciting about it. There’s no one moment, it’s just every moment.
HIW: Is there one gadget that’s essential to your survival?
SB: Super Glue. I have used Super Glue for quite major surgery, closing up cuts and wounds. That’s what it was originally designed for. I’ve used it to stitch up clothing and rucksacks and generally repair all kinds of kit. It’s the one I use for covering blisters and cuts and scabs and scars – particularly cuts on your hands and feet that won’t take plasters in the jungle where it’s all really soggy. Super Glue is my one essential.
HIW: And what’s next on your to-do list?
SB: I’ve got an expedition in which I’m going to be looking for my favourite animal, which is the wolf. We’ve got series three of Deadly 60, and I have a book coming out in the spring called Looking For Adventure about an expedition in New Guinea.