Patrick Aryee on filming with wildlife: ‘It makes you think about your place in the universe’

Wildlife documentary presenter Patrick Aryee on his work and his favourite mind-blowing facts about our natural world.


Patrick Aryee is exactly the person to talk to on Zoom halfway through 2020’s drab November lockdown. Our call is not just a one-man tour of the best nature has to offer. It’s also a thoughtful and passionate plea for nature, for a broader understanding of the wonders of science – and for the power of communicating these topics, amid a global pandemic and a climate emergency. 

Patrick’s style, his storytelling, is so refreshing, so compelling – I’m completely transported. In just an hour, I’ve been to the oceans of Dominica, wrangled rattlesnakes in Colorado, and now find myself reflecting on how nature helps us to learn about who we are and how conservation can up its game. That, I realise as I sign off, is the power of a brilliant wildlife TV presenter.

I always had a passion for science, but it was only once I’d finished my studies for a degree, in cancer biology, that I realised the lab wasn’t necessarily for me. So, what next? I suppose everybody asks themselves that question of what they’re going to do in life. What’s my legacy? Where am I headed? And that’s when I asked myself some simple but ultimately life-changing questions. What are my skills? What are my talents? And what do I actually enjoy doing?

I also really enjoyed theatre, performing, drama, dancing at school – you name it, you could count me in! But how could I meld these two things together? That’s when it hit me, ‘I guess I’ll have to be a wildlife TV presenter!’ Easier said than done…

Then I started the journey of figuring out how do you even do that? It was really tricky because everybody wants to get into TV. Forget about presenting, even an entry level role is fiercely competitive. But I had a dream, a vision, and a goal so made the decision early on that I’d stick with it no matter what. 

For five years I worked behind the camera, learning from some of the best wildlife filmmakers in the world. Then eventually, after working my way up the ranks, an opportunity came up to do a screen test. Long story short, it all went well, thankfully – and I secured my first ever TV series, Super Senses: The Secret Power of Animals. As you can imagine, I was over the moon. My mum was too!

I get to travel all around the world and see amazing animals. Finding out about cool ground-breaking science and meet people from such diverse cultures and background is just awesome. Once you start traveling, you appreciate that pretty much everybody in the world is actually the same, in what we’re striving for.

I’ve been cage-diving with great white sharks, had my hand licked by cheetahs, oh and a peregrine falcon flew through my legs once – that was gnarly!  Other encounters I’ve had include baby pandas, servals, caracals and all sorts of primates; from Chacma baboons jumping on my head, to having a little baby gorilla hold my finger – which, for the record, was pure magic!

This afternoon I was writing and script editing. In fact I literally just sent off a batch of scripts for a new season of 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter, a podcast I host with the BBC World Service. It’s all about biomimicry, how nature has helped us to solve some of our human problems and technological challenges – kingfishers aiding the design of faster bullet trains, to new-age Mars rovers inspired by a kart-wheeling spider. 

I love projects like that – not only do I get to investigate the latest development in tech and how scientists have learnt from the natural world, but I also get the chance to re-live some of the trips I’ve been on. Getting into the murky waters of the Amazon River (in the Bodoquena Plateau, Brazil) with a huge green anaconda, and watching baby elephants learn how to use their trunks – which would you believe takes a whole year! 

What are the other stories? Oh yeah, …rattlesnakes! Tracking rattlesnakes, Breaking Bad style – lone freight trains passing on a nearby single-track railroad were the only signs of civilisation, as I walked the prairieland wilderness of Colorado. My goal? Wrangling wild frickin’ rattlesnakes! I watched the video back the other day (Super Senses: The Secret Power of Animals episode 3), and I thought to myself, ‘Man! What am I doing?!’ 

I wasn’t alone – I’m brave but not that brave! I was playing assistant to Professor Steve Mackessy, a scientist who’s collecting data on a very special group of molecules found in rattlesnake venom, proteins called disintegrins. These disintegrins interact with integrins, which themselves regulate diverse functions in cancer pathology. So – find rattlesnakes, collect their venom, cure cancer.

Elephants can hear through their feet – I think that’s my most interesting animal fact. They’ve got these cells called Pacinian corpuscles in their feet and in the tips of their trunks which are sensitive to low frequency vibrations and allow them to effectively ‘hear’ using their feet and their trunks, which is kind of cool. They’re listening out for the low-frequency rumbles of distant thunderstorms. By detecting where these sounds are coming from, the herd can make a better decision on which direction to travel. For desert elephants this is extremely important. Moving towards rainfall means moving towards much-needed water.

There are also accounts of elephants using this to move away from tsunamis. I think this was in Sri Lanka, where… Oh, gosh, I’m going to have to double check the details of the story, it was so long ago. This is also the trouble being a presenter – you’re expected to remember everything on cue, and my memory’s terrible. I get caught out by kids all the time; they’ve got way better memories!

My absolute favourite memory is swimming with a sperm whale, swimming right alongside it. The cameraman had the shot all lined up and gave me the signal to speed up. I started kicking faster. But as I did the whale responded by swimming faster too. At that point I knew couldn’t keep up. I slowed right down, only to realise she’d also slowed down to match my speed. I remember that moment like it was yesterday, and in that moment realising, this thing wasn’t a ‘thing’, it’s like a person. It was like swimming with an old friend.

This was just off the coast of Dominica, in the middle of the Caribbean – in the blue, deep, deep sea. It’s very overwhelming, to be in water like that, so close a sperm whale – the biggest predator on the planet, I might add. There’s something enchantingly eerie about swimming next to a 20-tonne animal – I’m a fraction of its weight in size, yet we were having this really pure exchange. They’re such massive animals and it just makes your brain go ‘wow!’ It really makes you think about your place in the universe.

I think you can be a conservationist regardless of what job you do. You can be a lawyer, a plumber, an office worker, even a baker. Ultimately, it comes down to the kind of principles we stand for, the clothes we order online and the food we buy. I’ll be honest, I might not always get the most eco-friendly option, but I always try my best. I saw a quote the other day that spoke volumes to me, ‘to save our perfect planet we first need imperfect environmentalists!’

But I think that conservationists shouldn’t be scared to be badass mother-effing sharks. Business-minded sharks with heat-seeking missiles, ha! Let’s just imagine for a moment that one of the tech giants decided that they were going to run a conservation operation. You better believe they’d deploy all of the strategy, resources and technical knowhow at their disposal. But for real – I’d love to see the next generation thinking about conservation from a business perspective, with mother nature as their chief stakeholder. 

People love that sense of escapism that documentaries provide – but they’re also a powerful way of informing the public. The key is to develop a strong narrative that the audience can connect with. Then, not only do you earn the right to transport people to the farthest reaches of the planet on a journey of wonder, you can also guide them with a call to action to protect these places they now care about.

These films leave people feeling empowered, as to where they should direct their attention, where they can donate, and what the challenges are. Once we can identify the challenges, we finally can get to work on the solutions.

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