I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by Kirsten Knight, the marketing and publicity assistant at Exisle Publishing, asking if I would like a review copy of this interesting book. I accepted the kind invitation and my review follows. Although this is a New Zealand publishing company, the book is widely available in the UK.
The author, New Zealander Max Quinn, begins his career as a polar filmmaker in the Antarctic winter of the early 1990s at temperatures down to minus 50 degrees. He is working on two films simultaneously: the breeding cycle of emperor penguins and the lives and work of the scientists from New Zealand who also have to work in these extreme temperatures during the long winter of almost complete darkness.
The author, his soundman and others of the team managed to overcome the difficulties of working with equipment that is nowhere as sophisticated as now. It was a real challenge to successfully film penguins at close quarters and without panicking them in the darkness with lights, and with a camera and batteries that were prone to freezing.
The penguin breeding colony lay 85 km from where the author and team were based, and this journey had to be undertaken at the various stages the author wanted to capture: the penguins making their way on to the ice, egg-laying, incubation by the male, hatching, which coincided with the return of the female after around 120 days at sea feeding, and the growth of the young penguins before they eventually left the breeding site to go to sea.
Shortly after the author’s films in Antarctica he began a series that looked at the biological, physical and human characteristics of the Arctic and the Antarctic. This meant at least six trips, four into the Arctic and two to the Antarctic. The trips included filming scientists carrying out Weddell seal research and another scientist studying the antifreeze properties of a group of fish that includes the Antarctic toothfish. In the Arctic the author has a very close and dangerous encounter with a mother polar bear and two cubs. He films the drilling of the Greenland ice cap 3000 metres thick for core samples and the landing and cutting up of two bowhead whales by the Sami people as their traditional and permitted harvest.
After a return to Antarctica where he directed another film, the author made for the Arctic again, this time filming the Yukon Quest, a 1500 kilometer sled dog race. 41 teams of 14 dogs started out but some failed to complete the journey to the end and the $30,000 dollar prize.
Max Quinn was back to the Arctic again filming the work of the famed Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft, now fitted with a Teflon-coated ski at the front. This is an aircraft that can take off and land almost anywhere, often having to be landed in a whiteout by the crew using only their instruments. He also managed to film the last and deepest ice core to be drawn from the Greenland ice cap at 3083 metres.
Just when he though his polar exploration days were over the author was back to the Antarctic again on a research ship carrying out a 50-year census of Antarctic marine wildlife. The scientists landed some marine species new to science and satellite-tagged 30 humpback whales.
In his last filming expedition Mx Quinn travelled to the town of Oymyakon in the far east of Russia where the temperature has been recorded at minus 71 degrees. I’ll say no more than that this expedition finished with a bang!
This is quite an amazing book, showing the hardship, danger and excitement of filming in extreme weather conditions. As well as the scientific aspects of the films, the author has a real interest in and knowledge of the polar wildlife, and many different species feature throughout the book. It is well illustrated in colour photographs, with the pictures alone almost being able to tell the story. I can heartily recommend this book.
A Life of Extremes: the life and times of a polar filmmaker by Max Quinn. Exisle Publishing Pty Ltd, 226 High Street, Dunedin, 9016, New Zealand. £25.99.