Documenting wildlife wonders

JCU Alumni Alex Vail filming emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica for Frozen Planet II.

Supplied by Alex Vail.

Personnel Image

Written By

Mykala Wright


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

10 November 2023

Marine dreams turned movie magic

From behind the microscope to behind the lens, JCU Alumni Alex Vail turned his Bachelor of Science into a career capturing some of the world’s most unique wildlife in remote locations all across the globe.

Growing up surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef on Lizard Island, Alex knew from a young age that he wanted to work with nature.

“I had a very lucky childhood. My parents are the Directors of the Lizard Island Research Station, so I grew up around animals and the marine environment,” Alex says. “To me, if you loved animals and you loved being outside, you became a marine biologist. So that’s what I did, and I chose JCU because it’s one of the very top places in the world to study coral reef marine biology.”

After he graduated in 2008, Alex was awarded a Gates Scholarship and moved to the United Kingdom to do his PhD on fish and animal cognition at the University of Cambridge.

“My research was trying to work out what fish understand about what they’re doing compared to other animals. It was really interesting and I enjoyed it, but I realised that being an academic wasn’t necessarily my path,” he says.

“At the end of my PhD, I decided I wanted to tell as many people as possible about the amazing things that fish can do and show the world that these animals are so much smarter than most people assume. At the time I was a keen amateur nature photographer, and I thought a documentary might be a cool way to tell people.”

So, Alex began to teach himself cinematography.

Alex filming on the Great Barrier Reef.

Image by Grace Frank. Supplied by Alex Vail.

A scientist for the silver screen

Alex broke into the industry by working on a few small projects. Then, in 2015, he had the opportunity to film for the BBC’s Blue Planet II alongside David Attenborough.

“The producers were interested in stories about fish intelligence. Initially they contacted me to film the cooperative hunting interaction I had done my PhD on,” he says. “They mentored me through it, and I learned a lot. I must have done a reasonable job because they asked me to film more and more on the series, and work basically just snowballed from there.”

Since then, Alex has worked on a number of award-winning wildlife documentaries, including National Geographic’s Growing Up Animal and Hostile Planet; BBC’s Frozen Planet II, Perfect Planet and Seven Worlds, One Planet; Apple TV’s Tiny World; and Netflix’s Our Planet.

Alex says the understanding he gained from his degree has given him invaluable insight into his work as a freelance wildlife cinematographer.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am without having done my degrees in biology. I think it helped me to climb the ladder relatively quickly due to having a firm understanding of animal behaviour and the marine environment."
JCU Alumni Alex Vail  

“So much of being a wildlife camera person is the craft of trying to work out what the animal is going to do next, where it’s going to go and how you’re going to best capture that rare behaviour. I think my training in biology and the behaviour of animals has allowed me to better predict what they’re going to do.”

As well as an increased understanding of wildlife, Alex’s time at university equipped him with the knowledge and skills to effectively communicate with fellow crew members.

“Almost all of the stories that we film are based on work by scientists, so being able to communicate with them much more easily and understand scientific papers allows me to better target shoots,” he says. “My degree also taught me field craft skills and how to manage the logistics of projects in remote locations. There are just so many things that I learned that I use regularly.”

Alex sitting near a leopard seal, holding out his hand to the seal.
Alex stands on a latter in the forest, holding his camera with one hand and a tree branch for balance with the other.
Left: Alex interacting with a penguin in Antarctica. Right: Alex balancing on a ladder while filming in the jungle for A Year on Planet Earth.

A wild life

From 23 kg emperor penguins in Antarctica to 23,000 kg southern right whales in the Auckland Islands, Alex’s career as a cinematographer takes him all over the world and involves animals big and small.

“I’m very lucky and I get to travel to all corners of the planet. I’ve somehow become a bit of a specialist in doing extremely cold shoots. I really enjoy polar environments and snowy places; I love the challenge of it, which is a bit weird for a kid from a tropical island,” he says.

“I did one shoot in the Arctic where it was around minus 25-30 degrees. So, you can’t really take your gloves off for long because your hands freeze and you’d pretty quickly get frostbite, and even just getting to the spot where you sit behind the camera is a massive achievement. It’s just such a privilege to see those places and the animals that live in them because they’re so remote and hard to get to.”

On a recent shoot for Frozen Planet II, Alex was in Antarctica filming a sequence on emperor penguin chicks jumping into the ocean for the very first time — a rare sight to be caught on camera.

It was the third year in a row the crew had tried to get on location to capture the footage, with COVID-19 amongst other obstacles stopping them previously. With sicknesses and quarantine, what was supposed to be a six-week stretch ended up being an unforgettable two weeks out on the sea ice.

“We were there at the perfect time; all the emperor penguin chicks were just starting to leave the colony and make this big, long journey across the ice to the edge. We’re seeing them go over mountainous lumps of ice and across cracks before finally jumping into the ocean,” Alex says.

“Those situations can be a bit tense because you’re on sea ice at the time of year when it’s breaking up, and there are no helicopters or boats so if you’re on a piece that breaks off, you’re basically on a boat of ice floating out into the Southern Ocean. So, you have to be careful, but being out there was magical and it was such a special sequence to be able to capture.”

Alex says this story is only one of many memorable moments he has been lucky enough to experience during his time as a cinematographer. He recalls another in New Zealand with a whale named Patrick. At the time, Alex was shooting a sequence about how southern right whale populations bounced back after whaling.

“They’re the most amazing animals to be close to because they are just so inquisitive. While I was under water filming there was this one whale that just wouldn’t leave us, and we ended up naming him Patrick. He was like a giant puppy dog,” he says.

“An adult southern right whale is about the size of a bus, but Patrick was a sub-adult, so he was about the size of a minibus. He would just follow me everywhere. Even when we were done with him and went on to find a large group of whales, Patrick would follow along about a meter behind me. They’re so big but they’re so conscious of where their bodies are.”

Alex filming emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica for Frozen Planet II.

Supplied by Alex Vail.

While in the Artic shooting for Frozen Planet II, Alex and the film crew saw the Northern Lights.

Supplied by Alex Vail.

Alex filming penguins emerging from the water in Antarctica.

Image by Jonny Keeling. Supplied by Alex Vail.

A curious emperor penguin chick gets close while Alex films.

Image by Yoland Bosiger. Supplied by Alex Vail.

JCU Alumni Alex Vail.

Supplied by Alex Vail.

Documentaries that make a difference

As the natural environment continues to be plagued by issues of climate change, habitat loss and species extinctions, nature documentaries are a powerful educational tool for raising awareness and promoting sustainable behaviours.

Over the span of his career, Alex has had a front-row seat to the impact of global warming on the natural world.

“I grew up snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef and when I was back there filming for Blue Planet II, I shed a few tears into my mask seeing the aftermath of the coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017,” he says. “They were beautiful reefs, and they were pretty much obliterated. But the glimmer of hope is that they do bounce back quickly. Those events happened seven years ago and now, in some places, they look really good.

“If we, as humans, can get our act together and stop climate change, then these places can bounce back. But we’ve got to do our bit to make that happen, and I hope that these documentaries make a difference.”
JCU Alumni Alex Vail 

Through cinematography, Alex is able to bring unique animals and their remote habitats into people’s loungerooms — and more importantly, their hearts. He hopes that his work inspires people to be increasingly aware of and compassionate toward wildlife and the natural environment.

“I get to experience such amazing, remote places that very few people are fortunate enough to see. And the way we can share these places, and the sense of wonder that comes from seeing them, is through these documentaries. Because it’s only through knowing about them that people are going to want to save them,” Alex says. “The hope is that when audiences see these ecosystems and animals, they’re amazed. And then when they see a proposed new development that threatens a rainforest or reef, they take action, such as voting against these developments or political agendas that cause damage to the environment.”

Want to know more about Alex’s work as a wildlife cinematographer? Check out the tools he uses and the projects he’s worked on.

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