Steve Backshall has scaled mountains and come face to face with some of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. He talks to Chris Bond about his love for the natural world.
STEVE Backshall has been surrounded by animals of one kind or another his whole life.
Among his friends growing up as a child on his parents’ smallholding were the family’s asthmatic donkey and the grass snakes that used a compost heap as their home. “When I was growing up we lived on a small farm surrounded by goats, chickens and geese. Their lives were part of our lives, I used to milk the goats before I went to school in the morning, that was normal to me,” he says.
It was a gentle introduction to nature but nothing compared to what lay in store. During his career thus far the Bafta-winning wildlife presenter and naturalist has come face to face with angry hippos, swum with Great White Sharks and been dangled beneath a helicopter into a crocodile’s nest.
As presenter of the CBBC series Deadly 60, which tracks down some of the world’s most remarkable predators, he has become a household name – especially amongst children.
On top of his wildlife programmes he has also been to both the Arctic and the Antarctic, tackled some of the world’s highest peaks, headed deep into rainforests and dived to the bottom of seas.
It’s fair to say that Backshall is an outdoors kind of guy and this month he’s embarking on a UK tour that comes to Harrogate, Sheffield and Bradford, where he will be talking about his expeditions to the world’s wildest places and his encounters with some of the strangest, and deadliest, creatures on the planet.
“As someone who works in the media I know the importance of trying to inspire children to get outside and become interested in wildlife and adventure,” he says.
“When we were doing the Live ‘n’ Deadly events [an offshoot of Deadly 60] we were attracting 14,000 people to each event, which is just incredible and shows the fascination there is with our natural world.”
He says the idea behind the Deadly series wasn’t just about looking at predators that were potentially dangerous to humans, but deadly in their own world. “When people think of deadly creatures they talk about Great White Sharks but for something like a shrew, an owl is the most deadly predator.”
Backshall has, it must be said, gone after predators that most of us would run a mile from. As well as sharks and crocodiles he has also filmed the Fierce Snake, or Inland Taipan – the most venomous snake on earth (a drop of its venom is enough to kill 100 people). For someone who has spent his life studying and chasing after snakes, this was a special moment. But which other encounters have made the most lasting impression?
“For one programme we travelled to Patagonia to film orcas. We waited for ages to film them coming ashore to catch seals in the surf and eventually they did. That was just unbelievable, it doesn’t get much better than that,” he says.
Then there was the occasion he first laid eyes on a jaguar. “We’d been trying to film one for months but all we had found was footprints and I finally saw one in the Pantanal in Brazil, those memories stay with you.”
Many people are, perhaps understandably, frightened by something that could potentially kill them, but Backshall says animals are equally wary of us. “In almost every instance animals would rather move away from human beings than attack them.
“But you have to understand and respect them when you enter their environment. I’ve been diving with sharks since I was 12 and I’ve built up a lot of experience and knowledge,” he says.
Not that he automatically assumes he will be safe. “I have a healthy respect for some of the larger animals, like hippos and elephants. You have to be very careful with bull elephants during mating season and you have to be ready to move quickly if they get angry.”
Hippos, he says, can also be extremely unpredictable. “The males have huge tusks and can get very grumpy when they’re defending their territory, the females are also unpredictable when their young are around.”
Backshall’s interest in wildlife can be traced back to his childhood. “My parents are massive wildlife enthusiasts and when we were younger they constantly took me and my sister on day trips. We would go off somewhere in the morning and come back home in the evening tired and hungry. I think that probably sparked my lust for travel and adventure.”
After leaving school he went backpacking around India, Africa and Asia, spending time learning martial arts in Japan. He studied biology at the Open University and went on to work as a travel writer, becoming the National Geographic’s ‘Adventurer in Residence’ in South America, presenting and shooting his own natural history programmes from the jungles of Colombia.
He started working for the BBC in 2003, as a presenter on The Really Wild Show and since then has filmed wildlife documentaries featuring everything from polar bears to sperm whales. However, Backshall didn’t expect to become a TV wildlife presenter. “I thought I might end up working in a game reserve in Africa or something like that. I never dreamt I’d end up working on TV,” he says. “I suppose I’m jack of all trades, but mainly a naturalist and TV presenter. I really don’t see myself as an adventurer and explorer – that just sounds ghastly.”
Backshall’s travels have taken him to some of the coldest, hottest and most humid places on earth. “When you’re diving in water that’s minus 1.8 degrees it’s a very different challenge to working in the deserts where sand is the biggest issue, or the rainforests where humidity destroys anything electronic.”
For all his encounters with some of the world’s great predators the worst incident he experienced came while he was climbing after he fell 25 feet down a rock face in 2008. “I broke my back in two places, smashed my left foot and shattered my ankle, and that was the closest I’ve been to death.”
Despite his accident, and the long road back to full recovery, he is concerned that society’s attitude towards taking risks isn’t healthy. “I feel we no longer have control over our own destiny, we’re massively cosseted and it’s getting harder to move away from this.”
He believes, too, that greater understanding of our planet and the animals we share it with is something we should embrace. “I believe we are all born with an interest in wildlife, I think it’s inherent in us and I think that encounters with wild animals is emotionally nurturing – it’s good for us.”
Steve Backshall’s Wild World Tour is on at the Royal Hall, Harrogate, on October 22; The Crucible Theatre, in Sheffield on October 27 and St George’s Hall, Bradford, on October 28.