In a collaboration with National Geographic television, we follow 29-year-old adventurer and filmmaker Bertie Gregory on a nail-biting journey to some of the harshest, most spectacular corners of the world. Join guest host Drew Jones as he sits down with Gregory to discuss coming face-to-face with buffalo-hunting lions in Zambia, searching for the largest gathering of whales ever filmed in Antarctica, diving in dangerous Costa Rican waters to film hammerhead sharks, and spreading the message of conservation in the face of nature’s greatest challenges.
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PETER GWIN: We have something new this week. Our colleague and National Geographic Channels Executive Producer Drew Jones is going to take us behind the scenes of Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory. I’ll let him—and Bertie—take it from here.
BERTIE GREGORY: You ready?
I’m Bertie. Filming animals is my job, and I take it really seriously.
I’m trying to film penguins. Oh and I’ve missed it!
I want to tell wildlife stories in a rapidly changing world … That sounded like a big crack!
DREW JONES: Bertie travels from Antarctica in search of fin whales, Zambia for crowned eagles targeting bats, to Cocos Island to get up close and personal with hammerheads…
GREGORY: Whoa! That has really fired up the sharks. Now they are just blasting around. My adrenaline is just pumping!
JONES: … to deep in the Pacific searching for a megapod of spinner dolphins and back to Africa for an epic—pun intended—view of lions on the hunt.
GREGORY: Those lion tracks have got my pulse racing. We’re looking for a pride big enough to take on buffalo, and after six days of searching, we have hit the jackpot.
JONES: Today we’re taking you behind the scenes of National Geographic’s Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory. We’ll take you to three of the five locations we visit in this first season, so you can hear for yourself.
In each location, Bertie looks to capture a unique animal interaction. But being in the right spot, with the right equipment, at the right time, is far from easy.
GREGORY: If it was easy to do, if it was easy to see and film, it wouldn't be nearly as exciting when it all kicks off—if it all kicks off.
JONES: Twenty-nine-year-old adventurer and filmmaker Bertie Gregory is changing the way we view natural history programs. These missions are meant to highlight rarely seen and sometimes underappreciated moments in the wild, all in the hopes our viewers will understand the importance nature plays on our planet and the connection we all share.
I’m Drew Jones, an executive producer at National Geographic Channels, and I’m walking across the courtyard at headquarters to spend some time with Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, and beautiful world.
This week we’re diving in with Bertie Gregory for his new show, Epic Adventures, premiering on Disney+.
GWIN: All that and more, right after the break.
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[Bertie and team setting up camera at eagle’s nest]
JONES: First stop: Zambia, where Bertie travels to film crowned eagles, the most powerful aerial predator on the continent. They’re particularly adept at hunting bats, an encounter Bertie sets out to capture.
GREGORY: If I can see what prey comes back to the nest, it will help us figure out their hunting strategy.
JONES: His first stop is to place video and audio equipment near a crowned eagle’s nest. With the camera only feet away from the nest, Bertie and his crew aim to learn what drives the crowned eagles to hunt, what tools they have at their disposal, and how they approach prey before the team heads to bat country.
GREGORY: Oh wow. I’ve got a female in the nest. She is just beautiful.
JONES: Filming from the nearby tree, Bertie spots the mother pulling chunks of meat from a kill and offering it to a small, fluffy white chick in the nest. In just about four months, she’ll be as big as the mother eagle.
GREGORY: You need a lot of food to grow so big so fast. That kid’s parents are such incredible hunters that they smash over 130 mammals a year.
JONES: The power of these animals quickly becomes clear when a male eagle swoops onto a branch just above the nest, carrying more prey.
GREGORY: It’s got something. Oh, it’s got a monkey, it’s got a monkey. Whoa, he’s just ripped that monkey in half! They’ll do that if the kill is too heavy to fly home with whole.
JONES: After understanding the power behind these regal birds, the team travels some 200 miles and posts up in Kasanka National Park to better film them in a hunt. The park is soon to be a feasting bonanza for the eagles, who will come to stalk the millions of fruit bats who come every rainy season.
GREGORY: Just look at all these bats just streaming in from all directions. It’s just madness. I’ve seen some epic migrations, but this is on another level.
JONES: With Bertie’s drone in the air, the sunrise looks like a mirage behind the thousands of bats flying to their nesting grounds.
But even though the bats are an awe-inspiring sight, the reality of deforestation and the loss of their habitat becomes clear as the drone surveys the land.
GREGORY: From the air I’ve seen how fragile this place is. Even though the park and the bat roost itself are protected, the buffer zone that surrounds them is in terrible danger.
Huge areas of forest have already been felled for illegal industrial farming. Less forest means less fruit. Less fruit means fewer bats. And if the bats stop coming altogether, it will be terrible news for the eagles.
JONES: Back down in the forest with the sun beating down, the trees lean heavily with the smaller winged rodents as the eagles arrive and perch themselves on dead branches for the clearest line of sight for their approach. The team learns that the eagles wait for the bats to spook and scatter away from the security of the trees. But it takes time, and Bertie’s drone can only fly for so long.
[DRONE SOUND: Battery level is low]
GREGORY: Uh-oh. Drone’s out of juice. Right, time for the fastest battery change of our lives.
JONES: It’s only a matter of time before the eagles dive.
GREGORY: OK, there he goes. Find the target. Find the target. I feel like this is a view that you’re not allowed to get—way above the forest flying with the eagles. Here he goes … he’s got it, he’s got it!
JONES: From high above the African forest, to the surface of frigid waters at the end of the Earth, National Geographic’s Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory ventures to shed light on some of the greatest comeback stories in natural history. But to do so, he and his team head to the coldest and most southern place on the planet.
More after the break.
GREGORY: Antarctica may be the best place to film giant animals, but you can’t just rock up with your camera and press record. You have to pay the price of admission. And that means crossing one of the deadliest stretches of water on Earth, between South America and Antarctica: the Drake Passage.
It’s a 500-mile stretch of violent and unpredictable ocean, and countless ships, much bigger than ours, have been lost without a trace in these waters.
JONES: Bertie and his team brave the freezing cold waters of the Southern Ocean–the planet’s newest internationally recognized ocean–in hopes of capturing footage of a group of animals that was almost hunted to extinction. If reports from his conservation network are true, it will be worth it.
GREGORY: This beauty is a Southern fin whale. And these 80-foot giants can live 90 years. They are massive. Big female can be more than 80 tons–that’s about 16 African elephants. And they can be fast. I mean these fin whales are shaped like a torpedo, so they’re super streamlined. They can clock speeds of up to 25 miles an hour.
In one of man's greatest crimes against nature, three-quarters of a million fin whales were killed before commercial whaling was banned in 1986.
JONES: These were dark times for these magnificent beasts.
GREGORY: But in the last few years scientists have reported seeing huge gatherings of fin whales off a remote island in Antarctica.
And I want to film the largest gathering in history, above and below the waterline.
JONES: Bertie and his team’s goal is clear. Now to find out if the reports are true.
GREGORY: We made it to Antarctica. Look at that big wall of icy mountains at the end of the world. Oh my word!
JONES: As the team launches their search, they see remnants of whale bones still litter the beaches.
GREGORY: Hunted to the very edge of extinction over decades of commercial whaling, they are still listed as a vulnerable species.
JONES: Capturing footage of a massive group of fin whales both above and below the surface of near-freezing Antarctic waters is a tall order. First he’ll need to find the whales, so Bertie starts by looking for their food—krill.
GREGORY: The key to our success lies in the food supply. The ocean is vast, but if we can find their food, we should find the whales.
And penguins are our first major clue. They eat the same food.
GREGORY: There’s nothing quite like arriving at a penguin colony. It is a complete assault on the senses. It's noisy, it's really smelly. And there's just so much going on.
JONES: The hope is that by following the penguins offshore and into the feeding grounds, they’ll lead the team directly to the fin whales. It’s a lofty goal, and one that comes with a fair share of challenges. And in the end, after Bertie launches his drone into the air, the team is rewarded with an experience more epic than their wildest dreams.
GREGORY: This is unbelievable. I mean, it looked like a lot of whales from the surface, but now I’m up in the sky, the scale of it is mind-boggling. There are just whales everywhere. And all their blows are lit up by the sun, and Elephant Island in the background.
JONES: The stunning sight is a reminder of the importance of targeted conservation efforts–and how effective they can be.
GREGORY: It’s hard to comprehend that we slaughtered 750,000 fin whales, taking the species to the brink of extinction. Knowing that makes this spectacle even more powerful. And more importantly, new research has shown the vital role these giants play in capturing and recycling carbon. A thriving whale population brings huge benefits, not just to these remote waters, but to the planet as a whole.
From this footage, scientists estimate that more than 300 whales were feeding in this aggregation. It is the largest known gathering of fin whales ever filmed.
JONES: The oppressive African heat is in stark contrast to the Antarctic frost, but it’s the only place Bertie and his team are going to be able to film a wildlife interaction built on strategy. But unlike the Superbowl, the smartest and strongest don’t walk away with a trophy—they get to live another day.
GREGORY: I’m traveling to South Luangwa National Park, deep in the heart of Zambia. It’s one of Africa’s last great lion strongholds.
We’re on our way to the Luangwa River, which we’re hoping is going to be the scene for an epic battle between two gladiators.
There are over 30 lion prides here and thousands of buffalo.
The thing that makes me most excited and most nervous is that the animals don’t read the script, so I have no idea what’s in store for us.
JONES: With 30 lion prides in the area, the challenge may seem simple, but it’s a lot trickier than you’d think. While I’m not as traveled as Bertie, I’ve had the privilege of following lions in the African bush. In my experience, lions usually take advantage of the evening temperatures and move throughout the night, so they don’t overheat. This makes them difficult to track unless you are able to follow them through the night.
And during the day, they try to stay as cool as they can. That can sometimes mean they take refuge under a wooded canopy, which in turn means out of eyesight.
GREGORY: I think today’s the hottest day we’ve had. It is brutal. I am so sweaty and so smelly, and unfortunately the lions have chosen the one piece of shade in this entire plain, so we’ve got to sit out in the sun.
JONES: But trackers are able to locate where they go by what the lions leave behind.
GREGORY: Where are we looking? Here we go, that’s a good one. Big lion print–just there. You can see the toes and the back pad.
Those lion tracks have got my pulse racing. We’re looking for a pride big enough to take on buffalo, and after six days of searching, we have hit the jackpot.
That’s a lot of lions. I think we found our pride.
JONES: With the target lion pride located, they need to find the next piece of the puzzle–the buffalo. Miles away, Bertie takes to the sky with his drone to get a bird’s-eye view.
GREGORY: There’s a big herd of buffalo. This is even better than I thought.
Whoa! The herd is huge!
From up here, I can see them in a whole different way. They’re cohesive. There’s an order to what they’re doing.
And then, out front there are the pathfinders guiding the herd.
When you look at this wall of black and horns, it doesn’t look like a bunch of grass-eating herbivores. It looks like an army marching to battle.
JONES: Bertie and company just need to wait for the two forces to meet. This lends them a bit of time to assist in a local conservation effort.
GREGORY: Lions seem invincible, but habitat loss, poaching, and trophy hunting have pushed them to the brink of extinction. To help protect them, some lions in this park have collars fitted so that researchers can track them by satellite.
The collars have saved 47 lions from snares, and these lions went on to produce 217 cubs.
JONES: Back on the front, the team is ready to roll. They make their way into position to capture lions hunting buffalo like we’ve never seen before.
GREGORY: Whoa, they're taking the fight to the lions! Look at that!
The buffalo are just pouring past the lions.
One’s on a calf. It’s by itself there. I can't see any other lions around it. The rest of the herd is coming back. Ooh! The lion was right on that buff. I thought it was game over for that calf and the rest of the herd came back and drove the lion off.
I’ve got the shakes.
JONES: For me, what’s great about all of Bertie’s epic adventures, aside from the fact that they take viewers to places they may have never seen before, is the constant drum beat of conservation that allows us to have a better sense of humanity’s impact on the globe.
In Zambia, local legislation aided in reducing deforestation and helped support the fruit trees the bats and eagles depend on. In Antarctica, the illegalization of fin whale hunting has given birth to a new generation of fin whales who thrive off the coast of the planet’s southernmost continent. And in Luangwa National Park, tagging efforts have saved the lives of lions mistakenly caught in snares.
Don’t be fooled, each episode is a roller coaster ride of adventure in remote locations with amazing wildlife cinematography. But it’s the personal attention and care given by Bertie and his crew to the conservation of these animals and habitats that make the voyage epic.
GWIN: That’s Drew Jones, executive producer at National Geographic Channels. Catch Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory when it premieres this week on Disney+ for spectacular visuals of the amazing creatures, seascapes, and landscapes Bertie captures during his voyages.
If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.
This week’s episode of Overheard is produced by Drew Jones and Manager of Audio Carla Wills.
Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss.
Our senior producers are Jacob Pinter and Brian Gutierrez.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and has funded the work of Bertie Gregory.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
Watch Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory on Disney+, and check out some of the amazing photos Bertie and his crew have captured from his adventures, including his tree nest in Kasanka National Park, and swimming along whales with the help of an underwater scooter.
Learn more about Bertie’s career as an explorer and photographer, which started with a childhood obsession with nature, and his extensive use of drones and other filming methods to capture spectacular landscapes and peculiar animal behaviors.
The annual migration of fruit bats to Zambia’s Kasanka National Park is a critical to Africa’s environment. This article in The Guardian shows how wildlife protectors and conservationists are working against threats from poachers and deforestation, even in the face of violence.