I really view my career as a means to continue my education, in perhaps a broader way than I would have done had I stayed in academia. It’s given me the opportunity to read up on the latest cutting edge research in all different disciplines of science, and also allows me to learn about new ones.
I think my training ground couldn’t have been better, because I started on Bang Goes the Theory, covering all the different sciences. The natural world is beautifully complex, and finding a way to communicate the complexities is always a challenge. I think scientists are always challenged to communicate their work in a way that can be understandable to a broader audience, so it’s been really interesting to learn how to do that.
We’re looking to raise the bar with Stargazing Live. It’s in its seventh year and we’re doing it live from the Southern Hemisphere for a change, we’re moving the entire team to an observatory in Australia. I’ve been filming some stories for the programme in the Pilbara desert, in Western Australia, working with some fantastic scientists looking at stromatolites and signs of early life and how that might help to inform the 2020 Mars Rover mission. It’s fascinating stuff.
The landscape in the Pilbara is one of only two in the world that is still looking the way our planet looked just as our solar system was forming. Three and a half billion years ago, that landscape resembled Mars quite a lot. So when you look at the rock formations and the remains of the bacterial life in those rocks, you can understand where might be the best places to look for similar signs of early life on Mars.
Recently what I’m most proud of is an episode of Horizon I made on the future of zoos, which was something I’d wanted to make for years. It didn’t really unfold quite as we expected. Unfortunately we came up against quite a lot of resistance from the zoo community. The science is irrefutable; these animals are suffering, and elephant populations are not sustainable in captivity. It was a real eye-opener. We look back on zoos from the Victorian era and think they were quite dreadful, but actually we haven’t moved on that much, and I think we’ll look back in another 50 or 100 years at the zoos of today and think ‘What were we doing?’
I’d like to be part of that movement to expedite the evolution of zoos. I don’t want zoos to shut, I just think it’s time for them to take on the scientific evidence and evolve and educate our population in a more productive way. That means having smaller species, little microhabitats where we can see everything relying on everything else, interacting with everything else, as opposed to seeing one large animal that’s swaying back and forth all day. There’s a great potential for zoos, and I want to be part of that solution.
The Galápagos has been described as a mini world, this remote, isolated place with an extraordinarily improbable mix of wildlife. I can’t believe I actually made it there; it was such a privilege. We had the chance to be on this amazing research vessel called the Alucia with a dedicated submarine team, two submarines that can go down to 1,000m, and explore the oceans with scientists from all over the world. Some were sampling Canal Bolívar and I had the chance to go down with them which was just mind blowing. Then we went up to Wolf Volcano where the last remaining pink iguanas are, working with scientists who are tagging and monitoring them, trying to figure out whether this is the last hurrah for the species.
We have a problem there with invasive species now that are really threatening a lot of the birds, insects and plants in a very real way. Climate, marine pollution, our use of plastics – the Galápagos is sitting in a place where a lot of plastics from all around the world end up. But also the people that are living there are also polluting in a way that we were doing many years ago, and it’s privy to all of the threats that we’re familiar with.
I’ve come back from that trip desperate to not only communicate the wonders of this planet and the incredible scientists who are working there to try and protect it, but also to try and get people to understand that everything they do here affects there. That you can see a beautiful series about the Galápagos, you can even be lucky enough to visit it. But if you go back to your regular life afterwards, you’re not really embracing ownership of a place that is so unique and so special and so belongs to you as well. Certainly with our actions it’s about getting your voice heard in a very real way now, not just thinking that it’s Ecuador’s problem, and its job to fix it. We’re all in this together.
2009-2014 Co-presenter on Bang Goes the Theory
2010 Joins cast of Autumnwatch
2011 Co-hosts both Stargazing Live and Springwatch. Presenter on Egypt’s Lost Cities
2013 Starts as presenter on Countrywise for ITV
2015 Co-hosts Big Blue Live from California
2016 Presents an episode of Horizon entitled Should We Close Our Zoos?
2017 Host of Galápagos and co-presenter on latest series of Stargazing Live
This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.