The Marine Biologist: Hugh, what first got you interested in marine life?
Hugh Miller: Going rockpooling as a child on the coast of Scotland and realizing the world under the sea was much stranger than the one above.
TMB: The footage under the ice in the BBC Frozen Planet programme and the story of how you got it was fascinating. Do you think you will be seen as a pioneer of filming techniques in the future?
HM: No! [Laughs] Most of the techniques we use are modern versions of what has been done before. Today we benefit from much better cameras and kit but I do adapt the equipment to do what we want.
TMB: The water clarity under the ice was astonishing.
HM: The water has been under the Ross Ice Shelf in the dark for a long time and it circulates very slowly so nothing is growing in it by the time it flows past those sites. When summer comes and it’s light there is a big plankton bloom and the visibility crashes. There was a sense of vertigo and floating in nothing when it is that clear. On one dive, the whole water column tipped below the freezing point. The water was twinkling with ice crystals and crystals were forming on the equipment. It was extraordinarily beautiful.
TMB: Thinking about the early Antarctic explorers and their copious notes and drawings, has technology completely removed the need for any ‘analogue’ recording or notes?
HM: Notes and drawings are an interpretation of what is observed, and that is true with digital technology. What you choose to point the camera at and how you compose the shot is an interpretation, and the technology itself also interprets reality
TMB: What are you looking forward to in your underwater filming career?
HM: I’d love to film in the deep sea from a submersible, that’s a real ambition. We are also on the brink of some exciting developments with ultra HD [high definition], filming in the dark, much more advanced camera grip and so on. Who knows, I’d like to film giant squid one day! TMB: What is your most memorable marine life experience?
HM: The first time I swam in on a sperm whale in the Azores back when I was a camera assistant. We were way out at sea with the boat stood off and the cameraman and I were in a tiny tender with an electric motor which is quiet. I jumped in but didn’t see anything, so I was making my way back to the boat when all of a sudden a mother and calf appeared in front of me. When she saw me she ranged me with her sonar and I felt my lungs shake!
TMB: If you had to be a researcher what would you specialize in?
HM: Probably either fisheries as it’s important, but I would also like to look at vision and colour and how sea creatures see their surroundings.
TMB: Which marine scientist do you most admire?
HM: That’s a hard one; I keep finding new scientists that I’m in awe of! Edie Widder would be one because of her work filming giant squid. I have huge admiration for people who make machines that allow us to explore the ocean in different ways so I’m going to pick the engineers, Piccard senior and junior. Auguste designed the bathyscaphe, Trieste that reached the Challenger Deep and his son designed and skippered the submersible Ben Franklin that drift-dived the Gulf Stream for a whole month in 1969. It was an extraordinary journey and a pioneering expedition and everyone involved has my admiration.