He shares many similarities with fellow Brit adventurer Bear Grylls, including his initials, but Bertie Gregory isn’t military-trained. Nor a survivalist. He’s a 23-year-old wildlife photographer who made his name as a 16-year-old and can now call himself host of his very own National Geographic series, wild_life.
At an age when most are still deciding what to do with their lives, Bertie’s already living his dream, having spent the past two years traversing the globe alongside Nat Geo photographer Steve Winter in search of wild leopards and jaguars. He’s young, personable, charming and like Grylls, isn’t bad on the eye, making him the ideal candidate to launch Nat Geo Wild’s YouTube channel. Better yet, the guy’s got serious photography and wildlife creds.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’re somewhere in the depths of Brazilian wetlands on a satellite phone right now. Are you actively trying to get Zika?
BERTIE GREGORY: I hope not. I’m in the Pantanal, which is on the western border of Brazil about half way up. It’s in the middle of South America. It’s the world’s largest inland wetland and it’s the best place in the world to see jaguars. I’m with Steve Winter, he’s one of National Geographic Magazine’s photographers and he’s shooting a stills story for the magazine about jaguars. And I’m filming the jaguars for a Nat Geo Wild television program. But if zika is here, then I’ve probably got it. I’ve been bitten by many, many mosquitos. The first thing I will do when I get back is get a blood test!
You first went to Vancouver Island in search of sea wolves as a teenager in 2011. And five years later you’ve now got your own show all about your return on Nat Geo Wild…
Wild_life is my first solo project and it’s incredibly exciting. I was lucky enough to get a job as an assistant to Steve Winter on his world-wide leopard project for National Geographic Magazine a couple years ago and filmed him photographing leopards. That footage ended up becoming a show and I was getting some hints from the Nat Geo Wild people to pitch a solo project. I had this local knowledge of Vancouver Island from my earlier trip and it was the perfect thing to pitch. Nat Geo said they were trying to break into the digital landscape and wanted to do it as a web series for YouTube. And that’s how wild_life the series came to be. I went off for three months and the first episode launched August 3. There’s a new episode every week for 16 weeks.
Bear Grylls had to endure special forces training before he got his own TV show. How’d you get your break at such a young age?
It’s funny when you think about it like that. How did it all happen? A lot of blood, sweat and tears and a big handful of luck. I’ve been interested in wildlife since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My family were never particularly interested in wildlife, but we’re all obsessed with watersports and spent a lot of time outdoors as kids. I spent most of my childhood bobbing up and down on a surfboard off the coast of Cornwall in south-west England and I think when you spend lots of time in and around the ocean you get an appreciation for nature and my interest just went from there.
So at 10 you stole your dad’s camera and starting exploring the farms and forestry of south-west England…
They were near where I lived and I used to go into them to walk my dog and started to realise there was amazing wildlife right on my doorstep. I started stealing my dad’s small DLSR camera and found out that when I snuck off like a complete freak of a kid to go find wildlife, that if I took a camera with me it was a way of sharing my obsession and showing what I’d been up to. I really enjoyed the sharing part of it and it was also a way to channel my obsession. I’d keep working towards a particular shot or a particular animal and it really focused my attention. I just became more and more obsessed. Everyone at school thought I was a total freak.
Then you entered a national wildlife photography competition and won. At 16.
I was selected to be part of the 2020 Vision Project - a project in the UK that brought together the UK’s top 20 wildlife photographers under 20. Our job was to go around the UK and prove that British wildlife isn’t shit. As part of the task, we were each designated locations to photograph. And I thought, ‘this is unfair, I’ve drawn the short straw because my colleagues are getting to dive with seals and photograph osprey catching fish in wild Scottish lakes. And here I am stuck with pigeons in the city. But it turned out I was wrong. I found out you can have a wildlife experience that’s just as crazy and wild as anywhere else right in the city. And that ended up being pretty lucky for me. I was lucky that my picture stood out on that project for that reason.
You discovered wild birds of prey living in Big Ben…
I discovered what is now my favorite animal - the peregrine falcon. You’re in the middle of a city where all people expect to see are pigeons and rats. But the peregrine falcon is a symbol of the wild - the fastest animal on the planet. And it’s a pigeon-killing machine. So what’s not to like really? And to think you can see falcons right in the middle of a city - let alone on Britain’s Houses of Parliament - it doesn’t get much more British than that. Big Ben and a Peregrine flying around. It was all very convenient.
That’s the experience that ended up linking you with Steve Winter and Nat Geo. What was it like to be on your very first National Geographic shoot?
The day after I graduated from university with a degree in Zoology, I got on a plane to South Africa to start assisting Steve with a world-wide leopard story for National Geographic Magazine. It was pretty crazy how quick it all moved. It was a chance meeting and he just happened to be looking for an assistant. I shot a lot of video of Steve while he was taking stills and a lot of video of the leopards, and when we got back from that first shoot in South Africa we realised we had too much good content of leopards doing crazy things to just keep it as a print story. So we pitched a television show to Nat Geo Wild channel and they said yes. So our next leopard shoot in India, we filmed a television program which aired back in January on Nat Geo Wild. So that was my first foray into television.
But even before Nat Geo, you were hustling free trips around the world while still at uni…
As a university student, you don’t have any spare cash. Especially for going overseas at months at a time. But I worked out that I could trade my photographic skills for board and lodging. So I’d email wildlife tour guides in a location I wanted to go to and explain I was young and enthusiastic, take pictures and if they’d cover my cost I’d give them pictures. I got to go to the Amazon for three months and then Vancouver.
Apart from lens skills, what’s the most vital skill in photographing animals in the wild?
Long periods of time in one location. That’s the key to getting good pictures. The best pictures that you take are always in your local patch because you know that place better than anyone. So what I do is, I spend a lot of time in one location and start to make it my local patch. I learn the habits of the animals, where the sun rises and sets, and that’s they key to getting good pictures. Spend lots of time working those things out and you’ll have more time to get lucky.
You has some close encounters with some wild predators, too…
I’ve been lucky enough to photograph a lot of animals that could be potentially dangerous to me. But 99 times out of 100, if I were to have a scary encounter with an animal it’d be my fault. So I’m my own biggest risk. And lucky enough, I’ve had my wits about me.
But while filming for the wild_life series - and this is in episode six - I got to dive with sea lions. And a male bull steller sea lion is about 12 feet long and weighs 2000 pounds. They’re extremely curious when you get in the water and I had one actually bite me on the head! They don’t have hands and you’re a new funky object. So they use their teeth to feel you out. It’s not aggressive. But every now and again they bite you too hard, but you’ve just got to give them a jab on the nose. A bit of a punch. Now I think of that as normal and what you’ve got to do. But had you told me before the shoot “oh yeah, you’re gonna need to punch a 1000kg sea lion in the face when it bites you on the head” I would have said you’re barking mad!
And you narrowly avoided death at the hand of one of India’s most deadly…
In India, photographing leopards, I had to hide all night in a blind waiting for leopards to turn up. And one night I was walking to my blind in flip-flops because it was hotter than the hinges of hell. So I’m walking in my flip-flops and without my headtorch that I forgot. Then on the trail up ahead of me looked like a bendy stick. I thought it was weird. So I got my torch out of my bag and turned it on just in time to realize it was a metre-long Russell’s Viper. They’re one of the most venomous snakes in India. And if it bites you and you don’t get the antivenin within a few hours, you’re in serious trouble. From then on I wore closed shoes and never forgot my head torch again!
wild_life is a 16-part series currently screening on YouTube, with new episodes dropping every Wednesday.