Wildlife film maker Simon King will be presenting a new series of Shetland Diaries starting on BBC Two next Thursday and continuing for the next two weeks.
The Springwatch presenter, who has just returned from Kenya, developed a passion for Shetland after first coming to film in 2006. But he had already semi-fallen in love with the isles as a child many years before that, intrigued by the work of Shetland naturalist Bobby Tulloch and wildlife photographer Hugh Miles.
“I set foot in Shetland cautiously,” King said. “Meeting a ‘hero’ can be disappointing, but I was completely besotted.”
So he set out on an adventure with his wife Marguerite Smits Van Oyen and two-year-old daughter Savannah to follow Shetland through the seasons, get up close to some of the wildlife and experience life in the isles for this three-part series.
They arrived in Shetland in summer 2008 and stayed for as much of the ensuing year as possible between other commitments, which included filming big cats for a Disney production. Firstly, King and his family had to find a remote cottage to live in – one with easy access to wildlife, but also suitable for a two-year-old. “Making the film with the family [here] was a bonus,” he said.
Almost as soon as they arrived King heard of an orca patrolling the shores and he started his search – finally getting some remarkable footage of the orca coming in for a kill of a seal.
And anyone could see an orca, he said: “You never know where one will pop up.” Otter sightings were more sensitive and he did not want to reveal his filming locations, beyond saying that the ubiquitous mammal could be seen by people prepared to spend time to find them – and otter watchers should bear in mind the wind direction and keep their profile low.
Many familiar areas will be featured in the hour-long programmes, however. The gannets at Noss will be shown in all three episodes, and King had fun on a boat trip teaching Savannah to spot the distinctive divers. He also abseiled off a cliff-face to set up cameras to catch the movements of the birds in their nests.
Sumburgh Head’s puffins will be on programme three, and so will Mousa, where King camped for the night to hear the storm petrels.
During his time in Shetland he also set up a hide to observe Arctic terns and had a strange offer – to take part in Up-Helly-A’ by dressing in drag as presenter Kate Humble from Springwatch.
The winter proved tough and the King family suffered – and were fascinated by – its full force when they were marooned twice by high winds and high tides.
King observed: “Shetland is a lot closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. It’s on the same latitude as Alaska. It feels like a land apart – somewhere incredibly special.”
And he still regards the isles as special even though he has filmed all over the world. “You assume other corners of the planet are more attractive and exotic … places are entirely different and entirely glorious in their own way.
“The natural history, wildlife and scenery in Shetland is every bit a thrilling as Africa and [Shetland] is similar with the space, the wilderness and the big skies.
“I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world filming some of the planet’s most charismatic wild creatures – cheetahs, great white sharks, and lions to name a few. But it’s Shetland – one of Britain’s last true wilderness areas – that I now really want to get to know.”
Although Shetland was “singular” and possibly “not to everyone’s taste”, the all-pervading impression was of “spectacular beauty”, and the locals made it special.
He said: “The warmth and hospitality of the people to visitors is virtually unparalleled anywhere in the world.
“The welcome is heartfelt and the people have a sense of pride and respect for the place, knowing it’s special. We’ll continue to come back, we’ll continue for ever.”
Would his nature programmes influence tourism, did he think? “They might shift perception, but tourism is ephemeral. Everyone will have an opinion, but holding back on such a natural gem would be a travesty.”
Programmes such as his were how we learn about distant places, he said, and he tried to be honest, communicating by word of mouth. “It’s me first and TV second.”
King was awarded the OBE in the New Year’s Honours for services to wildlife. He said: “It’s a huge honour and I’m slightly bewildered, just doing what I love doing. How lucky am I to do this and be rewarded for it.”
• Simon King’s Shetland Diaries, a series of three one-hour shows, will start on next Thurday, 4th February, on BBC Two, 8.00-9.00pm.