Wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson brings Wild Atlantic Journey to Belfast

Wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson is taking a Wild Atlantic Journey to Belfast tomorrow evening and although there won't be any humpback whales in the theatre, he tells Gail Bell there'll be stories to make you want to set out to sea to find them

Colin Stafford-Johnson is bringing his one-man show My Wild Atlantic Journey north of the border this week
Gail Bell

BEING charged by a tiger, chased by a bear and looking a humpback whale in the eye is all in a day's work for multi-award-winning cinematographer and wildlife cameraman, Colin Stafford-Johnson, who will be revealing some of his momentous moments with an audience in Belfast tomorrow evening.

The Co Mayo documentary maker and natural history expert is bringing his My Wild Atlantic Journey show to the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, to share stories, clips and the best bits from Living the Wildlife series for RTÉ and Wild Ireland, The Edge of the World, for BBC.

"I am pretty much stuck on the west coast of Ireland with this show, but our Wild Ireland journey ended on the Antrim coast in the north where we were filming basking sharks, so that may be of particular interest in Belfast," he says. "But a lot of the animals I will be talking about are ones you can see on any part of Ireland. People will be familiar with them, but they might be surprised by the variety and scope of creatures living on our doorstep."

Wherever the location, the common thread that runs through this 20-plus date tour – which ends in Galway at the end of October – is a message of hope, positivity and the fact it's not 'lights out' yet in terms of the natural environment.

"We have wonderful whale watching in Irish waters and humpback whales feature a lot in my show," says Stafford-Johnson, who studied biology and film-making at university after back-packing around the world in search of creatures that had fascinated him since childhood. "I'm putting out a lot of positive stories because there's been a lot of negative stuff out there about the natural world at the moment.

"While many of those stories are true, there are lots of positive examples that things are getting better. When I was a kid, there weren't any humpback whales in Ireland and now there are; basking sharks were still being hunted and today they aren't.

"And, when I was at school, you couldn't find pine martens because we had persecuted them almost into extinction, but now they are coming back in really good numbers right across Ireland. I'm trying to give people the positive message that if we change our view to the natural world, it has this ability to bounce back."

One of his favourite memories comes from filming Wild Ireland – a Crossing The Line production for TG4 which, the cameraman is proud to say, beat David Attenborough's Planet Earth II to win the Grierson Award for Best Natural History Documentary in 2017.

"I was out on a boat on my own one day, just paddling along in a beautiful, calm sea, when I suddenly heard this really loud exhalation of breath," he recalls. "Then, I smelt the breath of a whale, its vapour, sweeping across me and my boat and it was this humpback which swam alongside me for the next 20 minutes or so.

"It was the most extraordinary thing – if I would stop, the whale would stop; he would literally hang around in the water, waiting. And, then, before he left me, he turned over slightly on his side and his eyes looked directly into mine – it was a very special experience."

Such encounters are pure exhilaration for the father-of-four who enjoyed a "very free" childhood himself and was allowed by his parents – his father was Barney Johnson, Ireland's first TV gardener – to go wander and explore the local woods, rivers and marshes near the family home.

Although he didn't set out to make meaningful eye contact a humpback that day, getting to know "your subject" and being able to predict its behaviour is the secret to capturing those magical moments.

"Animals are a lot more predictable than most people I know and they tend to have repeat patterns of behaviour, so that helps me be in the right place at the right time," he says. "I remember following a tigress in India and I knew a new male had moved into her territory and there was going to be a fight one day.

"That didn't happen for two months, but when it did, I was there because I was constantly on her trail, from dawn to dusk. When you capture a moment like that, you can build the tension and shape an entire film around it. I go home after a day like that exhausted but thinking it was a good day at work."

:: Colin Stafford-Johnson's My Wild Atlantic Journey, Theatre at The Mill, Newtownabbey, tomorrow, October 10.

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