Wild encounters with 24 -year-old Nat Geo speaker and photographer Bertie Gregory
Next up in our popular National Geographic LIVE! speaker series is Nat Geo’s first-ever digital series star, Bertie Gregory. Gregory conceived of and hosts wild_life with Bertie Gregory after an assistantship to famed wild tiger documentarian and Nat Geo speaker Steve Winter (who came to The Straz in the 2014-15 season).
A native of Redding, England, a few miles outside of London, Gregory became obsessed with wildlife early, filching his father’s camera to capture the images he saw in the woods and waters around his home. By the time he was 16, Gregory’s photographs had gained national attention, and he got his first big break at 17 by winning his way into Britain’s ambitious 2020VISION nature photography project. Through luck, pluck and hard work, Gregory eventually won his way into Winter’s coveted assistantship position (we’ll let him tell you that crazy story.) The day after graduating college, Gregory was on a plane with Winter following leopards in South Africa. Since then, he’s been everywhere, eventually convincing Nat Geo Wild to let him launch his own digital series, wild_life, in August 2016.
Charismatic, quick-witted and deeply committed to wildlife, Gregory agreed to chat with us by phone for this exclusive interview about his life, his work and his upcoming visit to Tampa.
BERTIE GREGORY: Oh, I’m very excited to come. It’s gonna be fun. As part of this tour I’m visiting lots of places that I’ve never been.
CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Well, we love our National Geographic speaker series and we usually interview everybody for our blog who comes through. We actually had Steve here in the 2014 – 2015 season, Steve Winter. That was the year before the two of you guys hooked up for your epic life-changing adventure.
BG [laughs]: Yeah, something like that, yeah. So what kind of repeat business do you guys get? Do you think people in the audience, a significant proportion will have been at that talk?
CITA: You’ll be the first of the new generation of the Nat Geo speakers that’s coming. So, you’re going to be quite different from what we’re usually seeing. But our feeling is that folks who were here for Steve Winter are probably also going be here for you.
BG: Okay, cool. Well, that’s very exciting. That’ll be good. I can play with that.
CITA: If you just get a round of applause in the beginning for people who know of Steve Winter or were here for the talk, you can kind of riff. The audiences love you all. You’ll have a very friendly, very receptive audience. We usually have a lot of kids that ask excellent questions in the Q and A after.
BG: Great, great. When I did my first Nat Geo live presentation, it was at the National Geographic headquarters and half the audience or something is staff. So obviously they all know Steve. I don’t know if you remember much of Steve’s presentation, but every photo in existence of Steve in the field, he’s wearing a headband. That’s like his thing. So anyway, I came out with his headband on and half the room nearly died. But it’s the kind of thing that it’s either really funny or just what? Why are you wearing a headband? Who’s Steve?
CITA: Ha ha, right, which is a little bit of like a wah-wah kind of moment.
Bertie and Steve Winter photographing leopards in South Africa. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)
CITA: But this is great conversation because it segues right into the first question. We came across your interview with Outdoor Photography magazine. You told this really great anecdote about getting the job with Steve, but I think they edited out some of the good parts. Will tell the story again?
BG [laughs]: Okay.
CITA: So what happened there?
BG: It was at an event called Wild Photos, which doesn’t actually happen anymore in the UK, which is really sad. But it brought together all the best wildlife photographer speakers in the world. The speakers they had there were amazing.
My year was a bit of an anomaly because I had met the person that organizes the speaker program. Well, I’d actually given a talk that she was at in London. She asked if I would like to give a talk on what it was like getting into the industry. So I rocked up at this event to give a talk in front of 600, 700 people at this really prestigious venue, the Royal Geographic Society in London. No connection to National Geographic.
I was way out of my depth because all the other speakers were some of the best wildlife photographers in the world. Steve Winter was there headlining the event. Word got out at the event that he needed a new assistant, he was looking for a new assistant. As you can imagine, this was a Willy Wonka golden ticket moment.
CITA: Of course.
BG: Every man and his dog was basically hounding him for the job at the event. In every break between talks when there’s networking with coffee and stuff, he’d just be surrounded getting hounded.
I figured well, there’s no point trying to compete with that because I have 15 minutes on the Sunday of the weekend. I was the very last talk of the weekend. It’s when no one can interrupt me; I can basically schedule my own job interview and Steve is going to be listening.
It was this amazing opportunity. I figured I’d speak directly to Steve … just with 599 other people in the room. I figured well, go big or go home. So let’s get his attention early on. I decided that it would be for some stupid reason because I think I’m a bit of gobshite, or at least my 17-year-old self was or 18-year-old self was.
And as I said, I basically put on his American accent and retold the story of the night before. How at the speakers’ party, the speakers’ drinks, I stood there surrounded by all of my photographic heroes: Charlie Hamilton James, Andy Ralph, Steve Winter, and they’re all buying me drinks. Then Steve just comes over with a big handful of shots and just says, “Hey, Bertie, time for some shots, brother.” And I just about died and went to heaven.
Anyway, I retold this story. I knew it’s the kind of thing that, with someone like Steve, is either gonna go down really well or really badly. Luckily, before I’d even hit the punchline, I could hear Steve laughing from the top layer in the theater. I was like, “Okay, that went down well, that’s good.”
But I didn’t think it would come of anything. I was just trying to do my best. Then afterwards he came up to me with the natural history editor for National Geographic magazine, Kathy Moran, and they offered me a job on the spot. I thought about it for about point three seconds.
Bertie and Steve Winter on assignment for National Geographic in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)
BG: And yeah, then what is it? Seven months later I graduated from college and the day after … I left graduation early to go home and pack. Because the next day I got on a plane with Steve to South Africa to start working on his leopard story for National Geographic magazine.
So yeah, it was ridiculous. And people ask, “Oh, how did you get in with National Geographic?” And you’re like, “Well, you can’t recreate that. That was just one of those things.” So yeah, that’s the story.
CITA: That is so funny. All right, so for your American audience, what is a gobshite?
BG: A gobshite, that’s probably not a very good phrase to use. It’s rude. So gobshite is probably, not literally like a big mouth that’s good at talking, ’cause that implies it’s a bit like, “Oh, look how great I am.” It’s more subtle than that I think. I don’t know. What’s a synonym for gobshite? You know, it was my cocky teenage self. Does that make sense?
CITA: Yes. In the south we say a ‘jackjaw’ or ‘jabberjaw.’ Is this your first time coming to Florida?
BG: I’ve been to Florida once when I was two. And I’ve been told by my mom that I cried the entire time.
CITA: We hope that doesn’t happen this time.
BG: I hope I won’t repeat that. Yeah, I think we went looking for alligators on those, the swamp hovercrafts and, yeah, apparently I made it a living hell for everyone involved.
CITA: We have a lot of Nat Geo people who do work in Florida because it’s so spectacular here in terms of wildlife. We were looking through your Instagram, and you and Steve went down and did the story on leopards and jaguars. We have a lot of alligators here, but many people don’t know that in the Pantanal, jaguars hunt caiman [a crocodilian similar to an alligator].
CITA: Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like being out there and capturing footage like that?
BG: I mean it’s … I think people have a very romantic idea of wildlife film making. In that we … and this is not a rant. In that we just gallivant around the world having a wonderful time and we just go from amazing place to the next and the animals are just dancing in front of the camera the entire time. [laughs]
Of course, the reality isn’t like that at all. You spend most of your time swearing at baggage trollies in airports. Yes, we’re incredibly lucky we get to go to some amazing places. But most of the time, pretty much nothing is happening. But all of the getting bitten by mosquitoes, being sunburned, freezing cold, all of that stuff, all that waiting and boredom is all totally forgotten—the mind has a great way of forgetting pain—in just a few moments that happen per year.
I’d say I probably get, I don’t know, three or four moments a year when … 10 seconds, 15 second moments when I go, “Yeah, this is amazing. This is so lucky. Yeah, I’m very, very fortunate to do what I do.” One of those was seeing the jaguars down in the Pantanal hunting the caiman. I mean we waited, we spent 45 days on the river down there. It was all summarized in one shot really, which was 30 seconds of absolute carnage.
That’s one of the only times I’ve been looking down the viewfinder and gone, “Oh, my god, I’m actually in a wildlife documentary right now.” That sounds really stupid, but it’s true.
CITA: Well, it’s super humanizing to know that you, in the middle of your wildlife documentary, are like, “Oh, my god, I’m in a wildlife documentary.”
BG: Yeah, totally. It’s funny, when you do get those spectacular moments, I think you’d think it’s a really enjoyable thing. But actually, the more crazy the piece of behavior, the rarer the piece of behavior that you’re looking at, the more stressful and scary it is. ‘Cause the only thing going through my head is, “Don’t fuck this up.”
Then afterwards, once you’ve seen that the shot’s in focus and not wobbly and you were hitting the record button, then it’s the enjoyment of, “Okay, yeah, that was really special.” But in the moment, I don’t find it enjoyable at all. It’s horrible.
Bertie encountered this baby ocelot that was part of the illegal wildlife trade and is now in a rescue center. She ran over when he leaned down to photograph her. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)
CITA: Man, so that is super cool. Not that it’s horrible for you, but to know that’s the reality of what you experience. Let us follow that up with a question which is really about the ethics of wildlife photography. Back to what you said about you’re there for 45 days and it’s summed up in 30 seconds: but, consumers of your work see the 30 seconds. So it looks instantaneous, the animal encounter. Then you have people who want to jump in their johnboats and go play with wild animals. What are your thoughts about the ethics of animal encounters?
BG: The mystique, I mean jokes aside, yeah, bad things happen when you do things that you don’t have the experience for. I’ve had experience with a bunch of animals and you apply what works with particular species to different ones. The ones that are potentially dangerous, of course you work with experts who teach you exactly how to do it. Because it’s just selfish and irresponsible to be near or trying to get near to an animal that you don’t know how to interact with.
Because if that animal, what if that animal harms you? That is so unacceptable because who gives a shit about your own personal safety and that you were harmed? The fact is, that animal, unfortunately in the world that we live in, the moment an animal lays a finger on a human, that animal has a death sentence. Particularly in North America.
You talk about any bear, any wolf, any predator, if it ever—in the extremely unlikely event that it were to attack you or have an aggressive encounter in any way—that animal has a death sentence now. That to me is so, so unacceptable to do.
The term ‘the subject comes first’ is 100% true. If the subject doesn’t come first, then if you’re just looking out for the product you’re trying to produce, then I think you’re in the wrong industry.
BG: Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry shares that opinion and those people give wildlife film making a bad name.
I think the moment you’re on camera, you have a massive responsibility. You really have to ask yourself why is it you that is on camera? If the reason that you’re on camera is for the sake of being on camera and you want to be famous and on TV, then there’s plenty of industries that that’s great for. Wildlife film making is not one of those.
All of the people that I want to work with in the industry and all the people that I’ve encountered that I’ve learned the most from and are the best at what they do, are the ones that are in it because they’re obsessed with wildlife first. And filming it is merely a great excuse for spending time outside with animals. It’s just a portal to focus your obsession.
CITA: You’ve been obsessed for a really long time. You said elsewhere that something like everybody you went to school with thought that you were an ‘absolute freak.’ This was just because you were different?
BG [laughs]: Oh, come on, you know sneaking off and skipping football practice to go jump in a river and film some swans is not a normal thing that a 14-year-old, 15-year-old should be doing. Yeah, of course at school ‘different’ is always weird.
But, the older I’ve got and the different people that I’m around, I wish I could’ve told my 15-, 16-year-old self, “Look, people will think you’re a freak now, but in a few years’ time, you’ll very quickly realize that normal is really boring.” And mad crazy obsessions with things are amazing and that’s what can lead you onto [your life] … [that’s] why I get to go all over the world and film animals. And get other people excited about what I’m excited about. I’m very fortunate.
So yeah, whenever I’ve given talks to schools, you often see the cool kids that aren’t really paying attention in the corner. I love calling them out ’cause it just makes them squirm. ‘Cause you’re not so much of a cool kid when 500 people are looking at you.
BG: Or they’ve made fun of some kid in the front for asking a geeky question. The great thing is I can connect with geeky kids in a way that perhaps some of my older peers can’t—in that I wasn’t at high school that long ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. So, I know how it works.
Saying to the nerdy kid in the front, “Just ’cause people might think that what you’re into is weird, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it and run with it. Because in five years’ time, yeah, you could be getting on a plane to go and film for National Geographic.” Rather than just worrying about who’s into the latest trend or the latest music or whatever. So yeah. I guess that’s what I’d say to that.
While filming on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Bertie encountered this 40-ton, 50-foot long humpback whale. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)
CITA: That’s super cool. Like we said, we’re really excited to see the next generation arrive in this series to educate us and show us all the stuff that you’ve been doing. Our audience is just going to go bananas over you. So outside of the well-known coastal wolf experience that you had, what are your top three coolest moments in the field?
BG: Oh, man, that’s a hard question.
CITA: Yeah, the top three, top three. And this is going in print, so these better be good.
BG: Oh, Christ. Right, okay. Well, coastal wolf for sure.
CITA: Wait, you can’t use that one.
BG: I can’t? Why not?
CITA: Because we said outside of the coastal wolf what are your top three?
BG: What? Okay. So, it’s four really, you’ve lied. Okay. So I would go with seeing a peregrine falcon fly in front of the houses of Parliament in London. That was when I was 17, 16. That was when I was like, “Yeah, this is cool. This is really cool.” You can find wildlife in a city that’s just as exciting as anywhere else.
CITA: All right, cool. Number two?
BG: The jaguar and the caiman, I guess.
CITA: Are you just saying that because we brought it up?
BG: No, no, no, that honestly was. But I don’t know. So … this is going out before my talk? I don’t know if we want to say ‘spoiler alert.’
A male jaguar hunting caiman in Brazil’s northern Pantanal. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)
CITA: Okay, okay, okay. We’ll rephrase the question then. Are there any encounters that had to go on the cutting room floor of your talk that you wish you could talk about if you had more time?
BG: Oh, I see. Hmm. This wasn’t necessarily like the highlight of … it wasn’t necessarily an amusing wildlife experience.
CITA: That’s fine.
BG: But it was just funny the places that wildlife film making can take you and the ridiculous situations it can get you in. I was in Amsterdam filming for a Dutch cinema film about the wildlife of Amsterdam. It’s called Wild City (De Wilde Stad). It actually premiers quite soon.
I was on the roof of a bank, like mini skyscraper. Like a bank tower block. I was filming peregrine falcons, and I had a Dutch camera assistant. We sat on this roof for probably a week, basically all day, every day, sat on the roof waiting for the adult peregrines. They were nesting on a building that was right next to us. We were at eye level to the birds as they flew in and out and we filmed them hunting over the city.
We had a helicopter come quite close to us and really low. We were like, “Oh, that looks like a police helicopter, that’s weird.” It circled us a few times and then flew off. Then my camera assistant, who was Dutch said, “Bertie, you’re probably gonna want to read this.”
And he was looking at the 85, which is by the main Amsterdam news channel. There was a news article on the front page of that online newspaper that said, it translated literally to say, “Panic over sniper on bank roof.”
CITA: Oh, no.
BG: People thought I was a shooter and they’d rung the police and sent the police over to check out what I was doing. Meanwhile, what I was actually doing was just minding my own business filming birds. So yeah, it’s amazing the kind of sticky situations that film making can put you in.
CITA: Wow. Yeah, man, you really lucked out there. What is next for you? You have a super amazing wild life, do you have something like a bucket list?
BG: Well, at my NG Live, I’m gonna tease what’s coming next. Over Christmas and New Year, I was down in the sub-Antarctic filming something very, very, very cool. And it’s one of the holy grails of wildlife film making. I expected it to be phenomenal, but it blew my expectations out of the water.
CITA: And you’re not going to tell us what it is.
BG: I’m not. But it’s gonna be coming out in the summer, and it’s really, really exciting.
CITA: Well, we can’t wait to see you next week.
BG: Thanks. I’m looking forward to it.
A photo from Bertie’s trip to the sub-Antarctic, approaching the Neumayer Glacier. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)
Get your tickets to A Wild Life with Bertie Gregory for his appearance in Ferguson Hall March 8.