Aussie scientist turned cameraman Alex Vail was part of the BAFTA Award-winning cinematography team which worked on Blue Planet II.
Aussie scientist turned cameraman Alex Vail was part of the BAFTA Award-winning cinematography team which worked on Blue Planet II. Stephen Bradley

The bittersweet reality of filming for David Attenborough

GROWING up on Lizard Island in Far North Queensland, Alex Vail's childhood was far from normal.

Instead of TV, he had the ever-changing colours of the Great Barrier Reef. Instead of chasing a ball around on a pitch, he ran after lizards, bugs and birds. He kept mantis shrimps as pets. It's little wonder he became a biologist.

"Mum and dad run the Australian Museum's research station out there, so we moved there when I was four years old and I lived there permanently until I was about 13. Snorkelling and diving and being in and around the water and playing with weird and wonderful creatures, I was set to fall in love with nature," he says.

The eastern side of the Great Barrier Reef is home to Lizard Island and its stunning set of pure white sands and warm waters. There are 23 beaches on this island, and these beaches are part of one of the most exclusive destinations in the country. You’ll not only need an interest in deep waters to visit here, but you’ll also need deep wallets too.
What a place to grow up.

He went on to earn a PhD in animal behaviour from the University of Cambridge, but the paperwork that comes with scientific research made him stir crazy.

"Doing statistics and arguing about definitions of things that wasn't exactly for me," he says.

"I'm more of a hands-on person."

He took the plunge into camera work and soon found himself working on Sir David Attenborough's landmark series Blue Planet II, which headlines a slate of world-class factual programs on Foxtel's new BBC Earth channel.

"The scientific background certainly does help with understanding the animals you're filming, learning how to predict or try and predict what an animal is going to do and why it's doing it," he says.

His knowledge of animal behaviour was integral to the filming of some of the show's most memorable segments, including Victoria's mass spider crab migration and a tusk fish using a rock to open clams - the first example of a fish using tools.

"It's such a privilege to go to these places, but it is hard work. I'm away for 200 days a year," he says.

"You are working in overdrive to make sure you don't miss the key behaviours. There's definitely a pressure to bring back the goods."

The series also brought him back to Lizard Island, but it was a bittersweet homecoming.

"It's not the happiest experience filming coral bleaching," he says.

"It was heart-breaking watching places that I've known since I was a little kid just dying. While it was great we could capture and share it, it was pretty sad."

Mr Vail, who is working on the BBC's upcoming series Frozen Planet II, hopes his footage will inspire a love for all creatures great and small.

"There is such crazy stuff going on in our oceans and there's still heaps of stuff we don't know about," he says. "Even a very nondescript looking little fish can have some pretty complex behaviour going on.

"There are heaps more stories out there, especially with lesser-known characters that are not necessarily less charismatic."

Blue Planet II airs tonight at 6.30pm Qld, 7.30pm NSW on BBC Earth.