Sue is a Durham University zoology graduate, and she spent 11 years with the BBC Natural History Unit, working on series including The Blue Planet and Planet Earth with Sir David Attenborough, before turning her focus to photography. Her most recent book, Emperor: The Perfect Penguin, with a foreword by Sir Michael Palin, was published in September 2018.
She has appeared on screen for the BBC, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic; been featured on the series Cameramen Who Dare; and has had her images in National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, Geo, and other distinguished publications.
Sue’s work takes her all over the world, but she has a special passion for the wildlife and icy beauty of Antarctica. She has won multiple awards in competitions including Travel Photographer of the Year, International Photographer of the Year, International Garden Photographer of the Year, and a Royal Photographic Society Silver Medal. In February 2021 she won the Climate Change category in the Science Photographer of the Year contest, run by the Royal Photographic Society.
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This podcast episode was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for being here.
Sue Flood: I am delighted to be here.
Tim Ferriss: In my cozy podcasting studio. And how would you describe where we’re sitting right now? Why don’t we start with that?
Sue Flood: Yeah, this is definitely not quite as cozy as I’d imagined. So we are sitting in the Weddell Sea at the most remote camp in the Antarctic right now. And we are sitting in a tent with a table made of snow and ice. And looking out the window, we can see a Twin Otter and some emperor penguins. So it’s cool in every sense of the word.
Tim Ferriss: It is cool on every level. And as I was mentioning before we clicked, or I clicked record, I’m using the royal we already, that I’ve tested this gear in some very hot conditions, but never in very, very cold. So I’m watching battery very closely.
Why don’t we start, since you mentioned penguin, we’re here, or the guests are here certainly, to see penguins. You are a penguin master of sorts. We’ll get into that. Where does this word penguin come from?
Sue Flood: Oh, that’s very cool. So I’m Welsh. I hail from North Wales, born in a place called St. Asaph, and living in a place called Llandderfel near the edge of Snowdonia.
Tim Ferriss: Rolls off the tongue.
Sue Flood: It certainly does roll off the tongue. And there’s a community of people from Wales who settled in Patagonia in South America. And pen is the word for head and gwyn is the word white. So penguin: white head.
And it’s thought that the first Welsh sailors who came over to South America, they saw Magellanic penguins, as they’re now known, and called these birds pen gwyn, white-headed birds. But there is still a community of people who speak Welsh in Patagonia. So there is a connection between Wales and penguins.
Tim Ferriss: It’s so wild.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I already mentioned that as I was on my — I’m not going to say first, I’m not going to say seventh glass of wine. Probably second and a half glass of wine. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And you can hear snow machines in the background. That’s part of this audio vérité. You mentioned —
Sue Flood: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: — the aircraft. And this is a, what would you call this? A working camp? Is it a station? Is this considered a station?
Sue Flood: It’s not a station, but yeah, a working camp that is put up especially for the purpose. And that snow machine you hear is carting away some of the, let’s say waste, that will be flown out back to South America, because we have to keep this place absolutely pristine.
So everything, and I mean, everything, bodily products, get flown back out to South America to keep this place as beautiful as it could possibly be.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like a Burning Man with fewer bikinis.
Sue Flood: This is true.
Tim Ferriss: And I wanted to have this conversation on tape because I recalled, and I have this experience every once in a while, when you and I were we’re trekking back from the empire penguin colony, dragging our sleds behind us, which are attached to us at the waist. And you’re telling me all these stories and I thought, “Goddammit, I really wish this were being recorded.” God, it bothered me so much.
But we’ve spent a little bit of time together, certainly in close quarters. Because we have the mountain tents in which we sleep, and then we have one structure right next to us. What is this even considered? It’s almost, if people can imagine, this is not the best description, but a wine barrel laying on its side, cut it in half horizontally. And then you have the top half, you put it on top of snow. Looks something like that. But what is this considered?
Sue Flood: So this is a structure called a Weatherhaven, and it is absolutely fantastic. Very strong once you put it up, and metal hoops covered in a strong canvassy material. And that’s our dining tent and it gets very, very toasty in there.
But then if you’ve got a nice, warm sleeping bag, it can be really toasty in your tent, maybe minus 20 or so at the worst. But then you get into your nice, warm sleeping bag and stick on your headphones. And the only thing to disturb the silence is probably my snoring heard throughout the camp.
Tim Ferriss: And hopefully you have eye shades as well, because it is incredibly bright here at the moment.
Sue Flood: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: 24 hours a day, which has been difficult to get accustomed to. I’m not sure if you ever do. But the light prompt, every time it would peep through the cracks in my eye shades, I would pop up thinking, “Oh, it is morning,” and check the alarm and be like, “No, it’s 1:00 in the morning. It is technically the morning, but it’s 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.
Let’s pull a hard left. You mentioned this yesterday and I thought it might be an interesting place to start the chronology. So, this is going to sound strange to people listening, but tell us about the very early days of your time on this planet and hips. What happened to you?
Sue Flood: Oh, whoa. So yeah, I was due to be born on Thursday the 12th of August. And I was actually a day late, born on Friday the 13th. And my poor parents were told that I would never walk. My hips weren’t formed properly and they were told I’d always be in a wheelchair.
And so, they were obviously devastated by that. And as a consequence, my poor dad had a lifelong aversion to Friday the 13th. But they tried this revolutionary new treatment at the time to try and build this special frame to hold my legs in a certain position and I was able to kind of recover.
And so a couple years later I was toddling around and the fine physical specimen you see before you today. But you know, yeah, I often think about how lucky I’ve been to not turn out the way they thought I would turn out.
Tim Ferriss: And not long ago, as I understand it, correct my memory here, you came across that brace —
Sue Flood: I did.
Tim Ferriss: — which I guess is almost like a retainer for your entire body, right? I would fit — were they like stiff suspenders that would hold your hips in a particular position? How would you describe it?
Sue Flood: It’s a little sort of X-shaped cross with hooks on the end of it. And it would hook over my shoulders and then hook into my backside to hold my legs in a certain position. Then my mum used to tell me it was just awful because they’d put me into this thing and I would just cry and cry and cry.
But they were told that they had to do this to try and give me a chance to possibly walk. Unfortunately, my father passed away recently and we were clearing out the house and found this little thing. And my brother was saying, “Oh, chuck that out.” And I said, “No, I’m going to keep it.” And that’s in my office just as a constant reminder that I’ve been very lucky.
Tim Ferriss: Now, how much of it is a reminder of being lucky versus something else? Or maybe it’s a combination, say, of overcoming adversity? It’s a leading question of course that I’m asking. But I’m wondering if you could just expand a bit on why you would want to have that at the ready as a reminder?
Sue Flood: Well, never to take anything for granted is, I feel like I’ve lived a super privileged life, not in any financial sense, but in a — my mum used to say I’ve lived the life of five people and I have my absolute dream job. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.
And as a child, I would watch David Attenborough on all these wildlife documentaries. And there were two people who really, really inspired me. One was David Attenborough. I remember seeing him crawling around in the Rwandan jungle with mountain gorillas and thinking, “Wow, that’s a cool job.”
And then also my dad. My dad used to be in the Merchant Navy. So he would have all these amazing stories from Japan, and China, and Burma as it was. And we had this big camphor wood chest he brought back from being at sea with kimonos, and hats, and head hunter saws from Borneo, and all this incredibly cool stuff. And it was inspirational as a child. But yeah, I never dreamt I’d actually get to do this dream job of being a wildlife filmmaker, but I did.
Tim Ferriss: And it wasn’t quite as simple as just signing up, was it? As I understand it. There wasn’t a signup sheet.
Sue Flood: I wish. Sadly not.
Tim Ferriss: So if we go back to, then, the inspiration. So you have these figures, your father, David Attenborough, probably among others, but those two primary inspiring you. When did you start and how did you start finding your way towards this job that you have now? What did the early chapter or earliest chapters look like?
Sue Flood: Well, I had no idea how to go about it. I wrote to the BBC, to the Natural History Unit as it’s called, which is a special department in Bristol that makes all of the BBC’s wildlife documentaries. And a very kindly producer there saw my letter and bothered to reply.
And of course, they get thousands of letters from people wanting to make wildlife films with David Attenborough, of course. But I went and studied zoology at university. So I went to Durham University in the UK, and this producer had said, “Look, you need to put something on your resume that will make us take a second look, because we get lots of people with their zoology degrees or their biology degrees” or whatever.
So I managed to get onto this really cool expedition to Australia. And I had to raise money to go on that and I was working for the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service for three months, unpaid, diving on the Barrier Reef doing these surveys for crown-of-thorns starfish, which were damaging the reef; white water rafting through the rainforest and building this path through the rainforest; and caving in the Outback in Chillagoe. So this was all —
Tim Ferriss: Caving, meaning cave diving?
Sue Flood: No, caving, going into caves into this limestone cave system. Which I definitely, that was a character-building experience since I don’t like the dark and I don’t like enclosed spaces. So that was a great mix.
And then I also, I’d heard about a place called Bermuda Biological Station, and they had this three-month work study program where you could volunteer and assist the marine biologists. So I managed to get onto that, and the three months became eight months.
And it was really great experience being out there because I was able to use that time. It was an unpaid position again, so I didn’t have the money to do this, but I was racking up really useful experience. So I got my food and my board and built up a credit card bill.
And I was assisting the marine biologists, as I say. And then there was this team who came out from the UK and they had been working excavating the Mary Rose. And the Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s flagship. So this incredible vessel that had been found and they had managed to excavate this ship. And they were now coming out, these specialists, to dive on a wreck called the Sea Venture, which had sunk in 1609.
And so I volunteered in the days of snail mail to, could I possibly help them? And they took me on to go and help that team, as well as working at the bio station.
Tim Ferriss: Could I bookmark this for one second?
Sue Flood: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Don’t lose your place.
Sue Flood: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: I want to rewind to this letter that you sent. So they get thousands of letters. Do you recall at all what you said in this letter? I’m just wondering why. Because it’s not physically possible that the producer who received it replied to all the many thousands of letters that were received. What did you put in that letter? Do you have any idea?
Sue Flood: Yeah. Well, and I have his reply somewhere at home. So it was along the lines of, “Ever since I was a child, I’ve watched David Attenborough’s documentaries. He’s inspired me to want to become a wildlife filmmaker. I’m going off to university to study zoology. I’d love to come and work for the BBC, and can you give me any advice?” That kind of thing.
And this person, Mike Salisbury, he’s a really kind, generous guy, and it’s typical of him to bother replying. And he was the producer on a lot of the big Attenborough series. So things like Life of Birds, Life In Cold Blood. Actually, and that was with my friend, Miles. But he’d worked on all these big, key series, and some of the older ones like Living Planet and so on. So that was the question to him.
Tim Ferriss: So he receives the letter, replies to the letter. I want to connect a couple of the dots to you arriving in Australia.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So this was, let me get the — Operation Raleigh?
Sue Flood: Yeah. So this was straight after university.
Tim Ferriss: And his — I’m sorry, what was the producer’s name again?
Sue Flood: Mike Salisbury.
Tim Ferriss: Mike. So Mike, in effect — please feel free to fact check this, but said, “We get a lot of people who check these several boxes. You’d best differentiate yourself —
Sue Flood: Right.
Tim Ferriss: — and add some —
Sue Flood: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: — add some special sauce.”
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How do you go from that to arriving in Australia?
Sue Flood: So this Operation Raleigh had been started up by Prince Charles and also a guy called John Blashford-Snell. And the idea of it was to give young people a chance to do community work, conservation work, character building stuff. And I come from this very tiny village in North Wales where not much happens. And a friend at university said, “Hey, look at this,” because it was all over the TV, in the papers.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it was advertised for applicants.
Sue Flood: It was advertised. Yeah, absolutely. It was very, very popular. And it was, “Wow, this seems amazing.” And she said, “Let’s apply.” And in the confident way I have, I said, “You’re never going to get onto that.” She said, “Come on, come on, let’s apply.” And anyway, we applied. So you had to fill out this form, this very detailed form. If you got through that, you got interviewed.
And I remember going into this dusty old room at university being interviewed by some equally dusty old men and thinking — and they were all terribly posh, I guess. And thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to get through this.” But I did get through the interview.
And then you got onto what was called a selection weekend, where you went away for a whole weekend and they put you through your paces.
Tim Ferriss: Ah, dress rehearsal.
Sue Flood: Yeah. And I remember going to sleep in this tent at about 10 o’clock at night, and then they wake you up at 1:00 in the morning. And we got given a box with a dead rabbit and some potatoes and things to make your evening meal. And no one took wanted to touch the rabbit, but I’d done zoology so I was happy with that.
And then the pièce de résistance at the end of the weekend in a very cold November in Newcastle was to, there was an outdoor swimming pool, unheated, where they told us to jump in and swim a couple of lengths.
And at that point, my friend Alice, who’d encouraged us to apply and she’d also got through, she promptly burst out crying and she did not get on. And I think I was made of sterner stuff. Maybe I’m just more used to the cold.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. So Alice. I hope Alice gets some chocolates or Christmas cards for that push, for that nudge in that direction. Okay. Thank you very much.
Sue Flood: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: That was great. I’m very glad we filled in some gaps there. So then, bada-bing, bada-boom, you’re in Australia.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You end up in Bermuda.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: This crew from the UK shows up. They, I suppose among other things, are doing wreck dives.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And they bring up — what was the date you said on the —
Sue Flood: 1609.
Tim Ferriss: 1609.
Sue Flood: And we were finding all these really cool things like shoes, like these leather shoes that had been preserved from being buried in the silt.
Tim Ferriss: And you volunteered to do this.
Sue Flood: I did volunteer. And coin weights. Because I heard that they were coming out and I thought, “Wow, doesn’t that sound amazing?” And by now, when I was at university, I knew that there was a chance of getting onto this Operation Raleigh, albeit a very small chance I thought.
And also, so I learnt to dive when I was at university in the hope that I got accepted and could go and do this dive project on the Barrier Reef. But, geez, I never thought I’d get to do anything like that.
So it was amazing. And, yeah, I never thought I’d get to Australia. It may as well have been on the moon as far as I was concerned. Because I had been to France and that was it. So, I was 20 years old and I’d hardly traveled.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. All right. So, I’m trying to think here. Because you have, as I guess we were chatting yesterday, and our now mutual friend, Ohm, was asking you about key life lessons takeaways. You mentioned carpe diem.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Because you seem very good at taking advantage of these Sliding Door(s) moments where you’re like, opportunity sliding. However, you also have this long term, chance favors the prepared mind type of orientation. Because you did the diving in the hopes that one day, if you were accepted, you would make the cut. Which you ended up being able to do.
How do we go from that point in time, the diving that you’re doing, to — not to provide a spoiler, but to David Attenborough?
Sue Flood: Well, you know —
Tim Ferriss: And there’s no rush. So whatever the path, as direct or meandering as it may be, I’m just curious how we go from there.
Sue Flood: Well, it was quite an interesting trajectory. So, by now I’d got some interesting things on my resume. I’d got the experience in Bermuda. I got the experience in Queensland with the national parks.
And so now I was writing to the BBC and saying, “Well actually, now I’ve done this.” So instead of getting rejection letters if I applied for a job, now I was getting interviews. So, first of all, it was I’d get through to the last couple of hundred for the job. Then it’s the last 50, then I’m down to the last 10. And I’d —
Tim Ferriss: Pause for one second. Up to that point, how many letters or communication of one sort or another had you sent to the BBC?
Sue Flood: Quite a few. I would write pretty regularly. And there was a — what happened was I’d get encouragement from people. Also, there were a couple of wildlife film festivals that I would go to and I’d just go, “Hi, here I am. Still here. I’d love to be a researcher.” But you know, not quite getting there.
And then I got to the last two for a job and I didn’t get it. Oh. And it was for this children’s TV program called The Really Wild Show. But the producer, a guy called Paul Appleby, he was really kind and he said, “Look, you didn’t quite get the job, but would you like to come and spend the day in the studio?” And one of the people who had interviewed me for the job —
Tim Ferriss: That’s very kind.
Sue Flood: Yeah, it was very kind. He’s a nice guy. And one of the people, it was a board of three people interviewing me. And one of them said, “If you’re ever in Bristol, just let us know. Come for a coffee in the BBC canteen, and come and tell us what you’ve been up to.” So of course I pretended I was in Bristol.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, happened to be. Direct path to Bristol.
Sue Flood: Exactly. So I took a five-hour coach ride to get there. And this producer, Michael Bright, we had a coffee and he, “What have you been up to? What have you been doing?” And he said, “I don’t suppose you’ve got any free time, have you? Because there was this researcher meant to be starting today and she just didn’t turn up.” And he said, “Have you got any free time?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And he said, “When could you start?” And I said, “Today.”
Tim Ferriss: Yesterday.
Sue Flood: Yeah. So I was given a three-day contract, and then that got extended by another three days, then a few weeks. And then —
Tim Ferriss: What was the project?
Sue Flood: There was a series called Wildlife on One. Actually, just before that there was a —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s right. Wildlife on One as in BBC One.
Sue Flood: BBC One.
Tim Ferriss: Now, back in that time, just for context for people who are not from the motherland, not from Britain in the case of us Yanks, at least. At that time, as I recall my childhood for instance, was it effectively, what, BBC One, Two, Three, Four?
Sue Flood: No, it was BBC One and Two.
Tim Ferriss: One and Two.
Sue Flood: Yeah. And then, there was ITV and Channel Four.
Tim Ferriss: Channel Four. There we go. But in the sense that you were getting incredible coverage —
Sue Flood: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: — to be on BBC One —
Sue Flood: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: — hit a larger percentage of the population than people now, younger generations would imagine because they had —
Sue Flood: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: It’s not like there were a thousand channels to choose from.
Sue Flood: No, exactly. And this was the BBC’s longest-running nature program at the time. So it’s presented by David Attenborough. And, wow. So I was getting to work with David at last.
Tim Ferriss: Getting closer and closer.
Sue Flood: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: So what did working with him look like? Was it through multiple layers? Did you have direct communication? What was that like?
Sue Flood: That’s a great question too, because I remember phoning him up and I imagined that there was going to be some secretary who answered the phone. And you hear his voice pick up, “Hello?” And I said, “Oh. David, hello, it’s Sue Flood. I’m surprised to hear you answer the phone.” He said, “Well, yes, I do live here.”
So I had producers, my boss and so on, and I was the researcher. But occasionally I’d have to speak to him. And that’s still exciting because he’s such a wonderful guy.
But yeah, that was my first break was working on Wildlife on One. And then there was a series that was coming up with the provisional name Oceans, and this was going to be an eight-part series that was going to be a big budget series on the natural history of the oceans. And this is the series that became The Blue Planet. And one of the cameramen had told me about this and he said, “You know, you should try and get a job on that because it’s going to be a really, really good series.” And I said, “Oh, God, they won’t get me for something like that.” But he said, “Well you’re a dive instructor.” I was a dive instructor by now. And I’d worked for a smaller TV company on a series about the oceans as well. So I knew my way around and yeah, so I applied and then my boss Alastair Fothergill. Alastair was the head of the Natural History Unit.
Tim Ferriss: Great name.
Sue Flood: Yeah, great English. And Alistair said, “You’ve got the job.” And I recall exactly what I said. I said, “That’s better than winning the lottery.” And it was. It was better than winning the lottery. Even now, if you could turn back the clock and I had the choice between winning the lottery and working on Blue Planet, I would choose working on Blue Planet.
Tim Ferriss: For people who don’t know, or maybe just have a passing familiarity since the name has come up quite a few times with David Attenborough. Who is David Attenborough? Just so that we can paint that picture just a little bit before we keep going. What has made him so iconic?
Sue Flood: Oh, well he has a longevity in terms of wildlife presenters, but I mean, he’s so much more than that. He’s now 95. He has inspired millions and millions and millions of people around the world. He’s just recently spoken at COP and as a child he was presenting these amazing documentaries as he still does, but he’s just an incredible communicator and just has this constant fascination for everything. And he’s not just an expert biologist, he’s an expert on all sorts of things. Paleontology, a type of china, amber, oh, all sorts of things. And he is a fascinating and lovely man who, as I say, he’s inspired mys of people. He also used to head up BBC Two, but he was going off doing things in his twenties that were really extraordinary, going off exploring in places like New Guinea and remote parts of Indonesia and doing some very, very cool things that I recall seeing as a child.
Tim Ferriss: Now for people listening, I’ll play foil, just as a stand in for some people who say TV presenter. That’s like a TV host on our side of the pond. How hard could that be? Isn’t he just reading a script? Isn’t that? What happens?
Sue Flood: Oh, so not. So not like that. I mean, he had many of the ideas for series, so he would come up with the idea and he would be writing the scripts. And the thing with David is he makes his job look like falling off a log, but it really isn’t. It’s incredibly difficult —
Tim Ferriss: To get to that point.
Sue Flood: Oh, yeah. And he just, to go into record studio and he’s there reading the script you’ve hopefully written for him but he’s always going to come up with some improvements. But yeah, it’s really so much more because he’s out in the field, and he’s just as I say, got this incredible enthusiasm for the subject matter and an incredible knowledge and it is absolutely infectious and anybody in the BBC Natural History Unit would’ve been inspired by him as a kid and he can do no wrong.
Tim Ferriss: And the voice. I mean, let’s not forget about the voice. And just —
Sue Flood: And here we are. [inaudible 00:29:01] Glacier or [inaudible 00:29:06].
Tim Ferriss: Or pause, pause. Snow leopard. Not snow leopard. I’m mixing up my leopards. Leopard seal. The footage they showed.
Sue Flood: Leopard seal.
Tim Ferriss: But just the pacing, the pacing is so outstanding.
Sue Flood: He’s brilliant. He’s absolutely brilliant. And he is just so unbelievably kind and nice. And there’s this great story where because his number used to be in the phone book. And I always remember him saying how this little boy had phoned him up because his pet rabbit was ill. Here he is phoning up David, Sir David, now, because he was knighted of course.
Tim Ferriss: That’s like calling the president of the United States to be like, “Yeah, the traffic light on my corner isn’t really doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Sue Flood: Exactly. Exactly. But yeah, I’m jumping ahead a little here, but one of the —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, we can jump all over the place.
Sue Flood: One of my top few experiences in my life, couple of years ago, I’d done this book and one of the paragraphs in the acknowledgements was thanking David for all he’d done to inspire me as a kid. And I’d gone to this book launch for a friend’s book, Michael Palin. And he had written this book called Erebus and I had a copy of my book in my bag and David was there. So the three of us had a drink together and I said, “David, please forgive me for doing this, but I’m never going to be able to do it again.” And I basically took my book out and held onto his arm and read out this paragraph in the acknowledgements about what he meant to me and how it inspired me. And then I got to the end of this paragraph and slightly teary eyed and then he gave me this big hug and yeah, it was great.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s so amazing. Full circle. And that book just for people listening, I’m sure I will have already mentioned it in the intro, but which book is this?
Sue Flood: It’s a book called Emperor: The Perfect Penguin. And I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time with emperor penguins, which as you know now, Tim, are the biggest of all the 18 penguin species. They’re the Happy Feet penguin, if you like, and they are so spectacularly beautiful. And I’d done a book, mainly photo led book about emperors and why to me, they were the perfect penguin and been photographing them over about 14 years. Crikey, that’s a long time. And so that was a book that came out a couple years ago.
Tim Ferriss: And literally as we’re sitting here, I think we can look and we’re looking out —
Sue Flood: Oh, look at that. There they are.
Tim Ferriss: In between some structures here and we see a line. Looks almost like cutter ants on their way back to the colony, but in this case it is a line of pretty closely spaced emperor penguins.
Sue Flood: How’s that?
Tim Ferriss: Tobogganing. Could you explain what tobogganing is?
Sue Flood: Yeah, tobogganing. Well, they can walk maybe even a hundred kilometers back from the edge of the ice where they’ve been feeding back to the colony to feed their chicks. And of course tottling along on their little legs takes them a long time, but they’ll flop onto their bellies and then propel themselves along using their flippers and they’re very strong feet and that’s exactly what they’re doing now. So we’re just sitting here watching this trail of the most beautiful bird in the world tobogganing along on their bellies, going off to feed their chicks. It’s very cool.
Tim Ferriss: They’re a lot faster on their bellies than I would’ve expected. They really move.
Sue Flood: Aren’t they?
Tim Ferriss: They really, really move. They’re like sort of oblong bowling balls. I mean they really hustle and you have some beautiful photographs of —
Sue Flood: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Let me just pause for a second. Just a little bit of space. I know I’m being very particular. It’s just the environment. You have this beautiful photograph that you showed the group here, which is of the track left behind, which would be just completely befuddling to decipher unless you knew what was going on because how are they propelling themselves? They do glide, then.
Sue Flood: They do glide, but they use their feet. They’ve got really strong feet that have special lipids to help stop them freezing because of course they’re standing around in the middle of winter, maybe minus 50 or so with wind chill and the males will be incubating the egg. So they’ll be using those strong feet to propel themselves along and then using their flippers to push in the snow. So you get this very cool track of where their belly’s rubbing through the snow and then these little sharp lines, either side of that. But yeah, you can never get bored of emperor penguins. And the big one there, as I say, the biggest of the penguins, but a tall one, a big one would be about 1.25 meters tall, which is pretty big.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it is big. It’s like —
Sue Flood: Weighs 45 feet kilos.
Tim Ferriss: Four-ish feet tall, something like that. You said 40 kilos? Yeah, thereabouts.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And you mentioned the males incubating. So the eggs are laid. Then the males will stand guard and keep the egg heated by putting it into what is this stuff?
Sue Flood: They have a thing called a brood pouch, a pouch, which is a bare bit of skin at the bottom of their belly. And they’ll tuck the egg in there. So the female of course lays the egg. She will pass it over to the male and she’ll then be zipping off to sea and leaving him to do all the work of looking after this egg during the winter. But it’s a really precarious thing to pass this egg in super cold temperatures over to the male. And then this big sort of flap of insulating skin goes over the top of the egg and he’s able to maintain that egg at about 34, 35 degrees, even though the outside temperature can be minus 50 centigrade.
Tim Ferriss: And just to emphasize the endurance required after that point, after the pass has been successful, the males will stand around for what, anywhere between two, two and a half months and lose something like 30, 40 percent of their body weight?
Sue Flood: Absolutely. 40 percent. Yeah, isn’t that incredible? So they cannot eat for about four months. From those time they’re arriving back at the edge of the ice, they’re finding their partner, mating, taking care of the egg, sitting on the egg for two, two and a half months. So that can be about a four-month period that they’re not eating. And then when the chick hatches, the first meal they get is from the father and he’s produces this kind of mix of protein and fat that he feeds through the chick from the special gland in his esophagus. So yeah, I mean just an amazing life cycle that they can breed over the Antarctic winter like that, incredibly harsh.
Tim Ferriss: So incredible.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s flash back to Blue Planet. Why don’t you just give people a teaser of some of the firsts that you’ve captured. So we’re going to bounce around a little bit, but then we’re going to go back to Blue Planet. So what are some of the firsts you’ve captured?
Sue Flood: Oh, yeah. I’ve been so lucky to photograph some very cool things. So the first shoot I went on for Blue Planet with cameraman Doug Allan and Tom Fitz, we went to Monterey Bay in California and that was to film killer whales, or orca, hunting gray whales, as they migrated up the West Coast of the States towards the summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Then a couple of months later, Doug and I went up to Lancaster Sound, Jones Sound, beg your pardon, in the Canadian High Arctic, where there was a super rare event of polar bears hunting beluga whales that were caught in something called a soft site, which is a hole in the ice being kept open by the movement of animals.
Tim Ferriss: And the reason they’re trapped, it’s not because it’s a pond, it’s because they’re mammals, the beluga whales, and ultimately if the next opening in the ice is too far away, they have to stay where they are.
Sue Flood: Yeah, so being marine mammals, belugas have to come to the surface to breathe and it’s thought that what had happened, they’d been feeding at the ice edge, waiting for the ice to break up before they could move into the summer feeding grounds. And there’d been a bit of a cold snap and in still conditions the ice can freeze very suddenly overnight, the sea ice. And so that ice had encroached on them and trapped them in this hole. But we were camping on the sea ice when we were filming this, a bit like camping on the sea ice here. But with the difference that you don’t hear it kind of groaning under your tent in such a sort large areas we’re in here.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you’ve certainly had no shortage of adventure. And I want to explore a bit more the experience in Monterey Bay because this phenomenon of orcas hunting, which type of whale was it again?
Sue Flood: Gray whales.
Tim Ferriss: Gray whales. And I guess specifically, what are they referred to as the sort of adolescent or young gray whales?
Sue Flood: So you’ve got mothers with their calves. And so the calves are born in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, California, and they’re going to migrate up the West Coast of the States to the summer feeding grounds in Alaska and Nancy Black, who was the biologist we worked with, she had this theory that it was the immature mothers that were taking a shortcut across Monterey Bay Canyon, that’s very deep water. And we knew that National Geographic had tried to film this and not been successful. And then my boss Alastair, who I mentioned before, he gave me the task of deciding, should we go and film this? So that was obviously quite onerous deciding shall we spend this money to go and give it a go. And we were extremely lucky that on day three, someone reported this behavior and Nancy, who runs a whale watch business and she’s a biologist in California, she had never seen an attack from start to finish in the whole time she’d been watching this.
So she said, “This is my hunch. I know roughly when it happens,” because the Blue Planet team had gone off to this marine mammal conference and had said if anyone’s got any stories that they think would be interesting for us, let us know. So this really interesting situation and day three, we saw these killer whales hunting gray whales. It was —
Tim Ferriss: May I pause for just one second?
Sue Flood: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: So day three, I don’t want you to lose your place, you’re mentioning that the younger mothers, so the theory goes, would take their calves —
Sue Flood: Straight across the Bay.
Tim Ferriss: On the shortcut, sort of not having the life experience of the more senior mothers who would —
Sue Flood: Exactly. Who were hugging the shore.
Tim Ferriss: Hugging the shore.
Sue Flood: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Saying, we know —
Sue Flood: Take the longer way around.
Tim Ferriss: Dragons be —
Sue Flood: Yeah, here be dragons.
Tim Ferriss: Here be dragons. Exactly. And couple of questions. You can answer them in any order. Why do you think, or perhaps you know, the National Geographic attempt had failed? And then when you were tasked with deciding go or no go, how did you think about making that decision? In other words, for instance, maybe there’s not much downside to you personally in your career for if you say let’s do it and it doesn’t work, it’s like, well, bad luck. Maybe there are consequences, but if it actually pays off right then like the upside is huge. So the two things, why did, whether it’s speculation or something that you know, why did Nat Geo not capture the footage? And then how did you think about making the decision?
Sue Flood: Well, in terms of the not getting the footage, I think they were unlucky because they had a fantastic cameraman Mike deGruy, who he was a brilliant cameraman and a wonderful person who’s sadly no longer with us, but he and another fantastic cameraman, they were really good guys and they didn’t manage to get it. But then, but I thought if they’re sending them to do it, they obviously think it’s worth a try, so let’s give it a go. But then in terms of trying to decide, my whole life as a wildlife filmmaker was trying to make sure that the camera team was in the right place at the right time. And I love logistics, I love the research, and some of these behaviors if you’re going to film something where an animal is, it’s well known what it does, maybe it’s a lion going to hunt impala in Zambia or something like that and people are seeing that regularly, but when it’s something that’s not been filmed before you just trying to have to piece together the bits of the jigsaw.
So I say this woman, Nancy Black, the biologist, she knew roughly where it was happening, roughly when, and then you have to think about, well, if you’re not there, you’re not going to get it. So let’s go and give it our best shot, work with her because she seemed to be the person, and she was indeed the person who knew most about it, get a good boat, have a Zodiac that we could get into to go and film from. And all you can do is try.
Tim Ferriss: And a Zodiac is, what would you say? 12, I don’t know. How many meters long?
Sue Flood: It’s a little bigger than that. Oh, crikey, maybe about 5 meters.
Tim Ferriss: So roughly 15 feet long. People have seen these before. They look, I suppose they are, are they inflated?
Sue Flood: Yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I mean they look inflated around the perimeter. Flat on the inside with an outboard motor. So more navigable.
Sue Flood: And we were sitting and when we found this event where the killer whales were surrounding this mum and calf and we quickly clambered into the Zodiac. And I remember my mum saying when she saw a photo of this, “You haven’t got your life jacket on,” because we got in so quickly, I’d forgotten to do that. And at one point the gray whale mother was trying to shelter under our boat. So as a biologist, it was incredible to see this behavior, absolutely amazing behavior. And literally the killer whales were, the orca, were close enough that if I’d wanted to, I could have touched them because they were coming right around the boat. But then, and as a filmmaker, wow, this is exciting, no one’s filmed this before, how incredible is that? Very, very high octane stuff. But then as a human being, it was pretty grueling to sit and watch this poor little calf get drowned and then eventually eaten, but hey, killer whales have to eat and nature —
Tim Ferriss: They’re not called killer whales for no reason.
Sue Flood: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Not called cuddling whales. So I’d love to get a bit more detail. So how large are orcas compared to the calves?
Sue Flood: Now let me have a think about that. I would say —
Tim Ferriss: We can use metric because we don’t have to accommodate the one of the few holdouts in the world aka US.
Sue Flood: I think a big male orca would be about 30 feet, 10 meters? I need to check that, but I think that’s what it would be as I recall. But so the calf, I guess the calf would’ve been about five meters, 15 feet, something like that.
Tim Ferriss: Okay so there’s a size differential, but not as much as I would’ve expected.
Sue Flood: Yeah, and that’s the big male orcas. they can have a dorsal fin that’s about six feet high, but the females would be smaller.
Tim Ferriss: Why are their dorsal fins so long? So dorsal fin for people, it’s imagine Jaws, the shark fin cutting through the water, let’s just say on the spine, on the back, that’s the dorsal fin. Why is the dorsal fin of the orca so long compared to the length of its body?
Sue Flood: Why is that? I do not know the answer to that. Why is it so big?
Tim Ferriss: It is really long thought.
Sue Flood: I guess maybe it’s acting a bit like a rudder or something. And certainly I guess if you’re traveling in rough seas, other members of your pod can see you because if you didn’t have, I’m just hazarding a guess there because they’re a interesting society. It’s a matriarchal society and when the male calves grow up, eventually they’ll leave the part. And you’ve got basically a group of females and calves. I mean they’re extraordinary animals and I’ve seen them do some really neat behaviors. After Blue Planet, I went on to produce a film about killer whales and we got to film some really, really cool behaviors.
Tim Ferriss: Like what?
Sue Flood: For example, in the Straits of Gibraltar between the Southern tip of Spain and Morocco, they were hunting blue fin tuna. So blue fin tuna will go into the Mediterranean to spawn and then about August time, they’re coming back out of the Mediterranean. At that point, the fishermen are long lining for them. And they are so smart. They had learned, they’d be milling around and you’d see them just swimming around just keeping an eye on things, and then the minute a fishing boat hooked one, they had clued in to the sound of the winch as they’re winching and as soon as they made a bee line for a boat, you knew that that boat had hooked a tuna and they would just be diving on this line and then the fishermen would haul it up and there’d be big killer whale size bites out of it. And yeah, I mean, they’re very impressive animals.
Tim Ferriss: That’s like some predators elsewhere will become attuned if they’re surrounded by hunting to the sound of gunshot. Grizzlies, and so on. Question about orcas. So in the case of Monterey Bay, this is going to sound stupid probably, are they hunting the gray whale calves to primarily eat? Are they teaching their young how to hunt? And well, let’s start there. Is it —
Sue Flood: A bit of both. A bit of both. And Nancy had this theory that what they were doing was eating the tongue and leaving the rest of it. And we were able to film that and show that was the case. So what happens they’ve got this thick layer of blubber, but the killer whales were going in sort of through under the jaw, under the soft palette and they drowned the calf by jumping repeatedly on top of it and holding it under and ramming into the side of it. And then they were actually eating the tongue and once they’d done that, they’d leave it and then just swim away. And Doug, the cameraman, he got into the water and was able to actually film this slightly gruesome carcass of the whale, which then sank to the bottom of the ocean and then would be feeding other creatures. So again, all part of nature’s great cycle, albeit a bit sad to witness.
Tim Ferriss: So if they’re just consuming the delicacy of the tongue, which is true for humans also, I feel like it’s some history of, say, some Native American tribes would regularly just remove the tongue of the bison, and leave the rest, of course, which would then get consumed by other things. Yeah. But what is your theory of what primarily was happening in that case? Was it teaching hunting? Was it sport? Was it simply sport?
Sue Flood: There was definitely an element of teaching hunting, and we were able to show that with the footage we got, because there was a particular matriarch that had a very noticeable little notch in her fin. So you could see that she was leading the attacks, if you like. But then she would hang back and you could see her and the other adult females hanging back and letting the calves go in and kind of have a go, if you like.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Sue Flood: So there was definitely an element of teaching, and I’ve seen that with orca in other places. Up in Alaska, for example, they were hunting merganser, so these sea ducks would be swimming around on the surface, and then the whales would swim underneath them, get hold of their feet and just pull them under. Almost like, just pulling them under for a few seconds and letting them go. So these birds were flustered and flopping around, and then they’d come up and do it again, just like playing. And then of course, eventually they drown these poor ducks, but they are smart animals. They’re smart animals.
Tim Ferriss: And coming back to the size of the dorsal fin, I like that the signaling theory — in the hunting that you’ve observed, how much of it is coordinated group hunting, almost like a wolf pack, or something like that, versus solitary hunting?
Sue Flood: Far moreso the former, and there was a fantastic film made by David and Liz Parer-Cook, and some years ago, gosh, about 20, 25 years ago, called Wolves of the Sea. They are just that, wolves of the sea, that coordinated hunting in a pack. So, and there are different types of killer whales, residents that hang around in one place, they tend to eat fish. There’s transients that hang more offshore and they tend to eat marine mammals. And then there’s an offshore type that’s a bit of a mix of the two. But yeah, I really enjoyed working with them. My one regret is I haven’t got in the water with them yet, but one of these days.
Tim Ferriss: What is the danger level in getting in the water with orcas?
Sue Flood: There’s never been a case of a person being killed in the wild by an orca. I mentioned that place near Tarifa in Spain, where they’re coming out of the Med after spawning. And one of the stories that I just loved was they’ll have these great big pens where the fishermen are catching their tuna, and if they’re not in great condition, they’ll put them into the pens to kind of fatten them up, if you like, for later in the seasons.
And this guy, his job was to repair these nets, make sure they’re in good condition, no holes in them. If someone’s caught it on their propeller, or something. And he was there in the water, in his dive gear, sort of sewing up this net with a bit of rope. And he became aware that someone’s watching him, and he turned and looked over his shoulder and there’s this killer whale just sitting at his shoulder, watching him repair this net. Which, yeah that would give you a —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, not spooky at all.
Sue Flood: Not spooky at all. That would give you a wee bit of a fright. But God, what a thrill.
Tim Ferriss: And you’d mentioned also, I’ll give you a visual cue and maybe you could — if you remember?
Sue Flood: Oh, I do remember. So —
Tim Ferriss: It just takes it to a whole different level.
Sue Flood: I love this story. I love this. So, there’s a cameraman called Andrew Penniket in New Zealand, who worked on this killer whale film with me, and he was telling a story about his friend diving in the Poor Knight Islands in New Zealand, which is this absolutely brilliant dive spot. And this guy’s swimming around, and then all of a sudden snags his leg, as he thought. And he thought he’d caught it on some fishing gear, or something like that.
And he turns around, and there’s this orca, this killer whale, that’s basically holding his calf between its jaws and just gently squeezing his wetsuit with its teeth, or sort of — well, this doesn’t look like it’s going to taste too nice, and just let him go. But yeah, I think you’d probably feel quite wide awake after that experience.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, no extra coffee needed after that time. Wow. So incredible. So what would you like to do if you got in the water with orcas? What would your dream scenario be?
Sue Flood: I would like to photograph them, but then equally it’s nice to not have a camera, and just sit and observe them because, as I say, no one has been killed by one. And we did have the intention when we were filming the Monterey Bay sequence, that we’d get in the water. But then we decided not to do that because they were really kind of thrashing around when they were hunting the gray whales. And I think there’s probably a very good chance you might have got injured, just in the the melee, not on purpose, but just —
Tim Ferriss: Well, this is as good a layup of a segue way as I could hope for. They might as well use this opportunity. The divorce whale.
Sue Flood: The divorce whale. Oh, dear God. Well, so Doug, who I mentioned earlier, Doug Allan, Doug is a fantastic, fantastic documentary cameraman. But as I always tell him, not such a fantastic husband, but anyway, he proposed to me when we were adrift on a piece of ice in the Canadian High Arctic, during the making of The Blue Planet, with the classic line, “If we get rescued, will you marry me?”
As I always tell him, probably he thought he was going to die to do that. But then some considerable time later, when we were working on Planet Earth, we were filming humpback whales in Tonga, in the South Pacific, which is definitely my favorite shoot from my time with the BBC. And we spent 10 weeks filming humpbacks, and the humpback whales that are in the southerly latitudes, which when the winter approaches in the Antarctic, they’re going to move to northerly climes to have their calves. So, places like Tonga, where you’ve got shallow, warm, protected waters.
And anyway, we were filming them, and we were both in the water, he’s filming the mum and calf, and I’m filming him, filming the mum and calf for the sequence for the Discovery Channel.
Tim Ferriss: And you’re quite close.
Sue Flood: And I was quite close, and I looked over the top of the camera and realized I was way closer to the calf, because I was on a very wide angle lens, and the calf was kind of flopping around because it didn’t have the control that the mum had. And you know, the mum’s 45 feet long, 15 meters long, and the calf was about 15 feet, five meters, weighing about a ton. And this calf basically bumped into me with its tail. I mean, certainly not being aggressive or anything, just because it didn’t have the control the mother did.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, bump is perhaps an understatement.
Sue Flood: Yeah. Because I was filming at the time, this was all caught on camera, and it just really felt like I’d been hit with a sledge hammer, and I thought straight away, “I’ve broken my leg.” So I stuck my head above the water and shouted to Doug, “I’ve broken my leg.” Normally, I would clip the video camera on before I get in the water, but this day I hadn’t because we’d got in the water very quickly, so I was just holding the video camera, and that was slightly negatively buoyant. So, it started sinking, and anyway, given the choice between rescuing me with the potential broken leg, or the camera, sadly, there was no contest.
So, I was not in any doubt before the incident that Doug preferred his camera to me, but I was definitely left in no doubt at all, after that event. So I always joke and call that the divorce whale. But, so we are divorced, for a number of reasons, but that, I think was a nail in the coffin. But we do get on much better now. I’ll get my own back one of these days.
Tim Ferriss: So you’ve had tremendous success in your career. What are some of the most common mistakes, or any mistakes that you see in novices who are trying to become, or are, but just in the early stages of being wildlife photographers? You can start with that category.
Sue Flood: You need to walk a fine line between being determined, but not too pushy.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Sue Flood: No one wants a pain in the ass. Hopefully I’m not, but you need to want to do that job more than anything else in the world, because it is absolutely all-consuming. I don’t have kids, and there are a very small number of people who have made a success of this career who do have kids, but it is a very small number. But yeah, you just have to want to do it to the exclusion of practically everything else. But I did want to do that, and it’s just been a fabulous life getting to do what I absolutely love.
Tim Ferriss: Now you are remarried.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I was chatting with some other folks on this trip also, just curious as to how the relationships work, like what the kind of agreements are, since some people here — I don’t know what your split looks like, but they’ll spend 200 plus days of the year on the road, and their significant other is not on the road.
Sue Flood: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Could you just tell us a bit more about —
Sue Flood: Yeah, sure.
Tim Ferriss: — about that.
Sue Flood: Happy to. Well, my husband, Chris, he and I were at primary school together, so we met, we were 10. Then didn’t see each other for 37 years, and a dear friend of mine, Judith Owen, she’s a fabulous singer songwriter and I’d been to stay with her and her husband, Harry Shearer, in Santa Monica, and photographed Judith’s album. Chris had seen a post I’d made about this, and then he said, “Wow, what an amazing voice this woman’s got.”
And we had got back in touch. I invited him to go to the gig, and that’s how we re-met after all this time. But he is not good in the cold, whereas Doug was the world’s leading polar cameraman. It’s a bit of a contrast there. So I think he wishes he’d married the tropical specialist, but he absolutely loves being at home.
He loves being at home, and of course, we’ve just had lockdown, so we’ve been at home together for almost a couple of years. And amazingly, he seemed to have enjoyed spending that time with me. But yeah, I’m going to be away a lot, probably the next couple of years, trying to make up for a bit of lost time and revenue, but you know, it’s what I do for a job and I need to be able to go to these places and do these things, because it’s what makes me tick.
So, it actually works out really, really well because it’s funny, someone was joking about having a home husband and a work husband, because I like working in the cold and have friends I can do that with, and then Chris likes being back home in front of the log fire in North Wales.
Tim Ferriss: That sounds like he and my girlfriend would get along. When I first shared the description of this trip, and I sent it to her, and if she could sleep in a sauna, not to be confused with, what is it?
Sue Flood: Sauna.
Tim Ferriss: Sauna. Yes. We had some confusion earlier. I do not speak the Queen’s English.
Sue Flood: Sauna. The sauna. What’s a sauna, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yes. What is that? Sounds vaguely foreign. The response that she gave me when I shared it, and I sounded very enthusiastic because I was downtown working. A very enthusiastic email, like, “This is even more amazing than I possibly could have imagined.” All these caps. And then we talked about it later, she said, “Yeah, I really hope you have the best time.”
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: “You should go, and this is not for me.”
Sue Flood: She’s probably on holiday with Chris, as we speak.
Tim Ferriss: They might be, they might be sitting in front of a log fire, yeah.
Sue Flood: I think so. Or some tropical island somewhere.
Tim Ferriss: How many people who are in relationships, do you meet, who have an opposite, as you do, in a sense, versus someone who perhaps understands because they do the same type of work? Because I’ve met some of both here.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Is there a breakdown that you’ve seen, or just in your experiences?
Sue Flood: That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I think that for me, it definitely works better being married to someone who’s the opposite than doing someone who’s got similar passions, because it’s the sort of job where you have to be very driven. You can’t think, “Oh, I’m going to stay in the tent today,” when the polar bears are off doing something exciting outside. The longest we had in one spell filming was 36 hours, because there was this interesting behavior going on. So you need to be —
Tim Ferriss: 36 hours of continuous filming?
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a lot.
Sue Flood: Yeah. But that was super rare, and that was this polar bears hunting beluga whales thing. So you have to be prepared to put up with discomfort. But then the really cool thing about my job now is, since I decided to leave the BBC, because you know, I wanted to go out on a high after Planet Earth, and —
Tim Ferriss: Getting out at the top like Rocky Marciano?
Sue Flood: Oh, absolutely. Just with smaller biceps, possibly. And yeah, no I did. It was just such an amazing experience, and by now I’d had 11 years working on these David Attenborough series, and this had been my absolute dream as a child. And I just thought, well, I’d been doing photography as part of my job, so I’d been promoted to assistant producer, associate producer, then producer and director. And I thought, you know what? I’m actually enjoying photography more than being a producer. So I decided to see if I could make a go of that.
Tim Ferriss: Now, quick interjection because I enjoyed your presentation the other day —
Sue Flood: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Time really blurs here, by the way, time dilation and contraction, it’s very hard to know how tired you are, or awake you are. I’m sure you figured it out over time. But for me, I’m like, “Oh, I’m so hungry and tired, and it’s probably 11 in the morning. Oh, wait, it’s one in the morning.” It’s very confusing to my circadian rhythm.
Sue Flood: It is.
Tim Ferriss: But when I was watching your presentation a couple days ago, it feels like a couple days ago, you mentioned that your photographs were sort of inching their way, centimetering their way closer to the covers of magazines.
Sue Flood: Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Right? So was that also part of the reason you decided, “You know…”
Sue Flood: Yes, it was.
Tim Ferriss: I think there’s a pretty good shot here.
Sue Flood: Yeah. And I —
Pun intended, I guess. Well, in the same way that as a kid, I thought, “If I don’t give it a go to try and work with David Attenborough…” and that was going back to that Operation Raleigh project in Australia, what that gave me was the confidence to at least try. And if I didn’t succeed, at least I tried, you know? Better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, kind of thing.
And then, same with this idea of the photography. So, as you mentioned, I got a shot of a great white shark on the cover of the BBC Wildlife Magazine, and then I got it on the cover of a National Geographic magazine. And then I had another shot on the back cover of the National Geographic magazine, and I thought, “Well, I’m getting a bit closer here, so let’s give it a go. And if it doesn’t work out, at least I tried, I won’t be sitting here wondering if I’d have succeeded.”
So I handed in my notice, and I had a really good bit of luck the next day. Although the old thing of you make your own luck, right? So I was asked the following day, did I want to join this Russian icebreaker that was going to the North Pole? And they asked me, did I want to do that? And I was going to go and speak about polar bears and other Arctic wildlife, because I’d just finished this film about polar bears.
So that led to me doing seven trips to the North Pole by nuclear icebreaker, and getting to have some wonderful experiences working on the ship.
Tim Ferriss: Quick question. What does nuclear icebreaker mean? Icebreaker, I understand.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What is the —
Sue Flood: So, rather than running —
Tim Ferriss: — significance?
Sue Flood: — on diesel, or whatever, it runs on nuclear power. And the Russians have a number of — can you hear those emperor penguins in the background? Isn’t that great?
Tim Ferriss: Another reason that you don’t sleep normally here.
Sue Flood: This is right. I mean, the other night, about three in the morning, there was one clearly standing right outside my tent, and about two foot from my head. And then suddenly started calling, which was a rude awakening. But lovely.
Tim Ferriss: Just to build on that, so people can fully appreciate. These emperor penguins do not have, as I understand it, any terrestrial predators. So when they are out of the water, we briefly mentioned leopard seal, we can maybe come back to that. But people can certainly Google it and see some crazy imagery. On land, they are utterly unafraid. I mean, you can still freak them out if you move too quickly, or something. But I guess some of the staff here call them the inspectors?
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Because they’ll come right up to you and check you out.
Sue Flood: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really incredible.
Sue Flood: Yeah. And you know, there are very strict guidelines about how close you can approach them. So, no closer than five meters, et cetera. But of course, if you sit still and wait, they’ll come and check you out. And it’s just a magical experience. I mean, one time I’d carried my camera bag out to the colony, and it was a really cold day, it was -22 centigrade, and I laid down, I put my head on the camera bag and was just listening to the chicks. And I actually fell asleep while I was listening to them. And my hand was stretched out on the snow.
And I woke up, I don’t know, 15, 20 minutes later and my arm’s on the snow, in my glove, with my glove on, and there was this little emperor penguin chick with its little flipper stretched out on my hand, like right next to me.
But yeah, going back to the icebreakers, I mean, I had seven trips on those, and lockdown has given me the chance to think about how I want to slightly change how I’m working. So flying less, cutting my carbon footprint, which has obviously been very easy in the last year and a half, because I’ve hardly been anywhere. But you know, flying less.
And then, it was very cool in September, a couple of months ago, I was asked to join a hybrid electric ship going to the North Pole. And this is this amazing ship, which, new design, by Ponant, the French company. So, I’m going to be working with them the next couple of years. So it’s really lovely to be able to find this hybrid electric ship running on liquified natural gas and battery power, and just doing things in a very different, luxurious way. Hurrah.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you also mentioned in a very quiet way, right, which is, I suppose, obvious once you say it, but you were mentioning that you’re on deck and being able to take these amazing photographs of polar bears because the ship is so quiet and you actually had to ask some fellow passengers to pipe down because their voice was the loudest —
Sue Flood: Yeah. It was louder than the ship. It was amazing.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible.
Sue Flood: So we were able to stand there, photographing this mother and cub playing around in the snow, clambering over the ice, rolling. Just behaving completely naturally and not affected by our presence. It was, yeah, absolutely wonderful. So, being able to sort of tweak the way you’re doing your job is really important.
Tim Ferriss: One of the things that I’ve seen you doing here with some mutual friends is going through photographs, discussing photography. What type of feedback do you give most frequently when you are interacting with people, say at a camp like this? What are some of the things that people perhaps don’t pay enough attention to, or things that are missed by folks who come here?
Sue Flood: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: Because many people who come here are experienced, not necessarily well trained.
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But experienced photographers.
Sue Flood: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: I’m one of the few people here who isn’t carrying equipment. How do those feedback / teaching sessions go?
Sue Flood: Nice question. Well, and that’s one of the things actually, that since I left the BBC that I’ve really enjoyed doing is teaching people and getting that feedback from people who’ve watched these documentaries, as opposed to just being with people who make them. I realize that actually being with people and getting them to observe the natural world, and tell them about animal behavior, and help them capture it with their cameras, or their iPhones, or whatever, you know, that’s something that I really, really enjoy doing.
So — and that’s led to a number of, whether it’s working for different travel companies, or private individuals where I’m taking them on location and doing that for them, or maybe making a book of their trip, that sort of thing. I love doing that. And just trying to point out different bits of behavior. So because as a zoologist, that’s been very helpful getting to be a wildlife filmmaker or photographer, so you can observe the animals and point those things out to them, and try and get them to look for the little moments that make a special photograph. Not just it standing there, but you know, what is there about the scene front of you that you can capture and turn into a special moment?
Tim Ferriss: Well, what might be an example of —
Sue Flood: Let’s see —
Tim Ferriss: — how to do that?
Sue Flood: — so something like emperors, when you’re watching them. So, because I’ve been fortunate to photograph them so much, you can tell when an adult has paired up with its own chick. It’s coming back from feeding at the colony, it’s walked — now at the moment, we’re about 10 miles from the edge of the ice. So it’s walked about 10 miles to come and bring food to the chick, and they locate their chick amongst thousands of birds by calling to it. And they will find their chick. That sort of thing, so much more poetic than that.
Tim Ferriss: It is, it is. And they have, I guess someone was saying, they’re biharmonics. So, it has a very particular sound to it.
Sue Flood: It’s a fantastic sound and then the chicks are calling to the adults and, oh, it’s just lovely. But you can see if that adult is with its chick, because when it is, it’ll snuggle in close to it, and then you can see when it’s about to feed it. So I’m able to say to people, “Look, you see that one over there? That’s its chick, it’s not a stranger,” if you like, and then it will stand there and regurgitate its meal of fish, squid, krill, to the chick, which is a lot more photogenic than I’m making it sound. But being able to do that kind of thing and help people see little bits of behavior is a cool thing to do.
Same when I’m taking people on safari. If you see a leopard and you can anticipate what that leopard’s going to do, because I take people on safari to Zambia every year and or watching marine mammals in Alaska, whatever it is, it’s just trying to get the detail and trying to help them tell a story with their photos.
Tim Ferriss: So if you have one, I suppose, very large component, which is your Venn diagram of strengths of helping people anticipate or perhaps first just see the behaviors, right?
Sue Flood: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So certainly you have your books, are there any other books that you’ve gifted most to other people?
Sue Flood: Oh, what a great question. I actually gifted one recently. So a friend of mine, Ian Dawson, he trains mountain rescue people, mountain rescuers in Scotland. He was working with me at the North Pole and he’d never seen a polar bear before. He absolutely fell in love with the environment and I gifted him a book called Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Have you read that?
Tim Ferriss: This is on my to-read list, Of Wolves And Men by Barry Lopez is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read in the last 10 years.
Sue Flood: Oh, it would be.
Tim Ferriss: And Arctic Dreams, I was just saying on the way here in the airplane that I wished I had Arctic Dreams, so I haven’t read it yet.
Sue Flood: It is a magical book and yeah, I gifted that to Ian and I know he loved it and yeah, that is a great read. You have to immediately dash off, well perhaps not now, but when you get back to civilization. Yeah, that’s a really beautiful book and I’ve bought that for quite a few people.
There’s also a fabulous book on polar bears called imaginatively enough, Polar Bears, something like [The Natural History of a Threatened Species], something like that, by Ian Sterling. Ian is the world’s leading polar bear biologist who is a fantastic person and I’ve had some amazing experiences with him going tagging polar bears. Yeah, so that’s another brilliant book, and having worked a lot with the Inuit in the Canadian High Arctic, I’ve got quite a large collection of books about Arctic stuff, whether it’s wildlife or the Inuit themselves, and polar art and so on.
Tim Ferriss: So, we’ll link to all these for folks in the show notes afterwards, so we’ll give that URL a little bit later, but I’m curious about polar bears. I’ve never seen a polar bear and I was chatting with some folks here. We have a lot of staff from Alaska. We have folks from Baffin Island and a number of them have commented because I was asking about grizzly bears as well, about how small grizzly bears seem compared to polar bears, which is mind-boggling for me to even ponder because I’ve seen grizzly bears and they’re by no means — they don’t strike me as small.
Sue Flood: No.
Tim Ferriss: I’m wondering why polar bears are so huge because you’d think their task of hunting seems to be much more difficult than say grizzly bear.
Sue Flood: I’d say so, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So wouldn’t it make more sense that to sustain a larger body requiring more calories would be better suited to the environment of the grizzly bear as opposed to the Arctic? So why are polar bears so huge? What am I missing?
Sue Flood: Well, I mean, for starters, they have to be able to survive a few months without food when the sea ice breaks up, because they need sea ice as a hunting platform to hunt for, amongst other things, ring seals, which are the most numerous seal in the world. That’s their favorite prey, but they can also hunt other seals. Sorry, rustling a bit there because I’m sitting here in my parka, in our little —
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to put my top up because my head’s getting pretty chilly. You need a little fur around the face.
Sue Flood: Yeah. So also, you’ve maybe seen footage of in documentaries where they’ll pound the ice and break through the ice to break into a seal layer, so they can break through several inches of snow and ice. So they’ve got to be pretty hefty to do that.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Sue Flood: Yeah, so the seals, the ring seals will build a little snow layer under the ice and they’ll be in there with their pup and then the polar bears will walk along and they’ll be able to sniff the seal through the ice and then put pound on that but I mean the —
Tim Ferriss: So the seal layer, it’s effectively a burrow?
Sue Flood: It’s called subnivean layer, so it’s like a little layer under the snow. So they will come up from the ocean and there’ll be a hole into this little den, this little pocket. And then there’s a, I think the word is aglu, this little tiny little hole, which is open to the air where they can breathe and both the Inuit and bears can spot this, quite how I’m not sure still. Then the other thing is that they will, as well as pounding through the ice. As I mentioned, I mean a pregnant female when she goes into the maternity den when the ice breaks up, she’s going to be in that for a few months. So they give birth to the cub and it’ll be about the size of a Guinea pig. She’ll be in her maternity den with that cub for about three months before they emerge out in about March, April time.
So she’s got to have the subcutaneous fat for her to last that time. Actually, there’s a really cool fact. I managed to get this into this film I made about polar bears with Ian Sterling and David Attenborough. So in 1990, oh, gosh, I think it was ’93, it might be 98. Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines. You think what the heck’s that got to do with polar bears, right? So when Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines, it threw up huge amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. That obviously stopped some of the solar radiation getting through.
So the following spring, temperatures were about one and a half degrees cooler than normal. That meant that the sea ice stayed longer than it would usually, maybe an extra couple of weeks. So that meant the polar bears, including the females, they were able to feed up a lot more on ring seals, put on more weight so that when they went into those maternity dens, they were able to basically have more cubs maybe, or hang onto their cubs and the cubs were in healthier condition. So they actually called the bears that emerged that spring the Pinatubo bears. Isn’t that incredible?
Tim Ferriss: That’s wild.
Sue Flood: So this volcano in the Philippines was directly linked to the success of those bears.
Tim Ferriss: Polar bear cubs.
Sue Flood: Isn’t that cool?
Tim Ferriss: That is amazing.
Sue Flood: I love that. Also actually polar bears, he came up with this great statistic, that polar bears being affected by forest fires. You think what’s that all about? But in the Southern Hudson Bay population of polar bears, which are the most southerly population, unusually sometimes they’ll be digging maternity dens into river banks where there are tree roots and so on, which will hold the substrate together. But when there’s a forest fire, then that will burn the tree. And then that is affecting how well that den can hold together. Anyway.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Sue Flood: All sorts of interesting facts about polar bears and here we are in the Antarctic, wrong pole.
Tim Ferriss: Wrong pole, yeah. Antarctica’s a real hassle to spell with your thumbs on an iPhone, so I told a friend of mine I was going to the Arctic to see penguins. He’s like, “You might want to just double check, make sure you’re going in the right direction.” I was like, “Okay, I will.”
Sue Flood: Well, I’ll tell you what, you sleep a lot better in a tent on the sea ice in the Antarctic than you do in the Arctic.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I bet.
Sue Flood: There’s a couple of occasions where we’ve been woken up in the tents by polar bears. And in fact, Doug, my ex, who we heard about with the divorce whale, Doug was filming polar bears with an Inuit friend. They were in the tent around about March time and it was pretty chilly so he was huddled in his sleeping bag and his feet were pressed against the wall of the tent. He was woken up by a polar bear pawing his feet through the wall of the tent.
Tim Ferriss: God.
Sue Flood: So he woke up Andrew, our friend, and said, “Hey, we’ve got a bear in camp.” Andrew said, “Just open the tent and it’ll run a way.” He said, “No, you open the tent.”
Tim Ferriss: “You open the tent!” Oh, my God. Yeah, no, thanks. I’ll let you do that. You seem confident.
Sue Flood: Where do you think all his gray hair came from?
Tim Ferriss: Does that actually work?
Sue Flood: It did work, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It did.
Sue Flood: They unzipped the tent and the bear ran away.
Tim Ferriss: So strange to me because I’ve also seen footage of bears smacking on windows and trying to get in.
Sue Flood: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. People are fairly regularly killed by them, but the first time we ever went to the Arctic, I will never forget it as long as I live. So I’ve got pretty big feet and I was able to stand and put both of my feet inside one paw print and have a bit of space around the outside.
Tim Ferriss: They’re so big. They’re so big.
Sue Flood: Yeah, they are.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really incredible.
Sue Flood: And very impressive.
Tim Ferriss: Well, speaking of boots, I’m in these boots.
Sue Flood: How are your little toasty feet?
Tim Ferriss: Well, they’re rated down to, I guess negative 100 Fahrenheit and my toes are cold.
Sue Flood: Oh, dear.
Tim Ferriss: It’s okay. They’re not frost nipped or frost bitten, but —
Sue Flood: But your backside will be soon.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I don’t know if I can even feel my ass anymore. Sue, where can people find you online? Where can they find you?
Sue Flood: They can find me on my lovely new website, which is just sueflood.com. Flood like lots of water, sueflood.com and then Twitter and Instagram, Sue Flood Photography or Sue Flood Photos and yeah, love to hear from you.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, we will link to everything in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. So please check it out. You have to see Sue’s work, it’s just spectacular and it’s not just the expertise and the patience and the endurance and the creative eye that is reflected in the work. It’s also the spectrum of your photography. I mean, it’s not just — even if it were solely in say Antarctica, it would still be amazing, but you operate and have been able to capture such incredible visuals in so many different environments with so many different animals. It’s very impressive, I must say.
Sue Flood: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. But you know, my mom, Tim, she always used to say, “How come you’re so patient with animals and not with people?”
Tim Ferriss: What’s your answer there? They don’t talk back?
Sue Flood: Yeah, something like that. Yeah, it’s a lot easier to be patient with, I don’t know, a polar bear or a leopard than some people, but yeah, thank you for that. Thank you for that lovely comment. It’s a massive privilege to do what I do for a job and I never forget it. You know the great thing is going back to full circle to when I was at school, because when I was about 15, I was asked by a teacher at school, what do you want to do when you leave school? And I said, “I want to make wildlife films with David Attenborough,” and was told nobody gets to do that, how about cooking? Which was obviously a non sequitur. A few years ago, I was invited back to my school to hand out prizes on prize giving day and give a speech in Chester Cathedral. So I was able to tell that story and say, “If you have a dream to pursue something, pursue it. Because I was never the smartest. I was never the hardest working, but I knew what I wanted to do and I’m too stubborn to give up.” So that’s probably the secret of some of the success, but yeah, it’s a privilege to A, get to do it and B talk to you about it. So thank you.
Tim Ferriss: It’s so fun, it’s great. I mean, what a spectacular environment. I can’t think of the next time that I’ll have a chance to sit in a snow / ice lounge in this sort of half spherical tent. It’s like being inside the top half of a 20-sided die for any D&D nerds out there, with this ice table that has been created.
Sue Flood: I know. It’s pretty fancy.
Tim Ferriss: I am very impressed that the gear has actually seemingly lasted this long. I also want give credit where credit is due. We have Hannah to thank for many things, keeping us alive and running this camp, being very high on the list. But also just to humanize you a little bit, she was telling a story, as we were huddled around the oven in there that I guess it was a previous trip where there was a daily practice of sitting down and she would say, maybe you can fill in the gaps here. “Sue, you have to tell us three good things about yourself.”
Sue Flood: Oh, no.
Tim Ferriss: Because you’re so bad at it.
Sue Flood: She did say that and she brought it up the other day, yeah. That is not my high suit and I have constant imposter syndrome, constant. So Hannah punished me by trying to get me to say three nice things about myself, but it’s funny, you make me think Tim there was this event. I’m still astonished that I was invited to this event at Buckingham Palace to go and meet the Queen as a result of my photography. My first reaction when I got this was this was someone playing a joke on me. Yeah, and it wasn’t and I just find that remarkable. I’ve got one of my photos hanging on the wall of Buckingham Palace, which —
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Sue Flood: — wow. I mean the Queen, good grief. I did the world’s worst curtsy, which was having watched American football on TV. It would not have looked out of place of American football match or a rugby scrum in Wales. But anyway, it was a rare chance for me to wear a dress, that doesn’t happen very often. That, and when I got married, I think was the last time.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. Well, to a great many adventures had and a great many adventures to come. It’s really wonderful to spend time with you. You’ve been so generous with everyone here.
Sue Flood: Oh, thank you.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really wonderful to see how excited you still are to engage with the work. Being out there and sitting out there and listening to the penguins and watching the penguins as I have been, has always gone hand-in-hand with watching you on your side —
Sue Flood: Crawling around in penguin guano.
Tim Ferriss: Crawling around in penguin guano, doing the little, come on, come on. The little hand beckoning to get the —
Sue Flood: Yeah. I’ll often talk to wildlife because you’ll often catch something’s attention. If you start talking to it, or if you’re in the water with a humpback whale or something, you can start singing down your snorkel or something where you’re going to catch something’s attention.
Tim Ferriss: Catch their attention.
Sue Flood: So now next thing we have to do is we have to go to the Arctic together. Then we can do a podcast about more polar bear stories.
Tim Ferriss: I’m into it, I’m very, very into it.
Sue Flood: Excellent.
Tim Ferriss: As long as I don’t have to be the one unzipping the tent, I’m all for it.
Sue Flood: Yeah, and there won’t be a tent. There’ll be a luxury icebreaker. I’m all over it, don’t worry.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I’ll bring my podcast studio with me, which for those who obviously can’t see this, it is just an H6 Zoom sitting on my thigh. It’s the only warmth that I’m currently getting.
Sue Flood: The only warmth and let’s not forget your special hat.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes, yes. Then I have a banya, a Russian banya hat, a sauna.
Sue Flood: A sauna.
Tim Ferriss: A sauna hat which insulates your head, especially if you’re bald like I am, so that you don’t turn your ears into Chinese dumplings when you’re in these things. It turns out to be perfect for an ice table when you want to put your gear down without destroying it.
Sue Flood: Absolutely, no expense spared.
Tim Ferriss: No expense spared for my hand me down Russian banya hat. I would say this has been a great success. So thank you again, Sue.
Sue Flood: Hey, thank you. Absolutely loved it. I really appreciate the opportunity. Yeah, look forward to the Arctic next. North Pole here we come.
Tim Ferriss: North Pole, here we come. Everybody check it out, sueflood.com and we’ll link to all the socials. You’re on the various networks and so on. Where are you most active on social media?
Sue Flood: Probably Instagram.
Tim Ferriss: Instagram. What is your Instagram handle?
Sue Flood: Sue Flood Photography or is it Sue Flood Photos? I’m just blanking. I’ll check.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll put the right one in. Pretty easy to find, Sue Flood P-H and then it’ll pop right up. So check it out, everybody. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Sue, what a gift, your work and your teaching is. So thank you again for that.
Sue Flood: I’m cringing here now, at you saying something nice. It’s a disaster.
Tim Ferriss: I know, I know. It’s nice things, nice things, nice things, and well deserved.
Sue Flood: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: To everybody listening, I’m going to go warm up my body and my feet and my rear side with some hot coffee, hot instant coffee. I love, I wouldn’t say it’s shitty, but I really enjoy hot instant coffee.
Sue Flood: Yeah, you need to get over that.
Tim Ferriss: There’s something about it.
Sue Flood: Where’s my cappuccino machine when I need it?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, you know, I’m from Long Island. No one ever accused me of being too high class, so I’m showing my true colors. Everybody listening, thank you so much for listening. Until next time, be safe, be adventurous. Let someone else unzip the tent and you’ll be able to find everything at tim.blog/podcast for links to everything we’ve discussed.
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