BBC in Waitomo

Sir David Attenborough examining glow worm threads – ‘spellbound’ in the glow worm cave, Waitomo.

In 2005 we were very excited to host two prestigious BBC film crews from the Natural History unit. The first headed by Sir David Attenborough, were filming for his newest series ‘Life in the Undergrowth’, the second crew were working for producer Huw Cordy, also a highly acclaimed natural history film maker, filming his latest series ‘Planet Earth’.

Both crews arrived in NZ within days of each other with the intention of using very specialised film equipment to frame the best ever shots of the notoriously difficult to ‘get’ NZ Glowworm. They employed the expertise of our friend and fellow glowworm obsessive, Dr Claire Baker who advised them about the biology of glowworms and assisted with filming.

Claire with assistance from NZ cavers and our local Department of Conservation staff carefully selected a handful of likely sites for filming. To our delight both crews chose the Spellbound Glowworm Cave to capture almost all their images of these amazing little animals and their gorgeous lights.

We were fascinated to find out about the work of these super professional people and impressed at the efforts they went to, to outdo each other for the best shots of glowworms. In spite of long hours and obvious tiredness they were full of energy and good humour and it was our pleasure to assist. We would like to thank Claire for contributing to our page, for the wonderful care she took during filming in the glowworm cave and for letting use her photographs!

Interview with Claire Baker

How did an Australian entomologist get so involved with filming glowworms in NZ?

Glowworms have been my (fascinating!!) study insect for a number of years and the producer, Huw Cordey, contacted me to find the best locations for the BBC shoot. After talking about the fragility of both the glowworms and their cave habitat, I was asked to go on the shoot as their scientific advisor and to minimise any impacts from filming.

Glowworms live in both Australia and New Zealand and both countries have extraordinary glowworm displays, especially in the large limestone caves such as the Spellbound cave! So why did we shoot in New Zealand and not my home country, Australia? An Aussie never likes to admit it, but sometimes the Kiwis have the upper hand. Glowworm tourism has been operating at a higher level for much longer in New Zealand. There are many places to see glowworms in New Zealand, but the most famous area is in the Waitomo region. Here any tourist can choose from a multitude of glowworm viewing options! From a gentle boat ride to an abseiling/black water rafting adventure, there is something for everyone and the glowworms are superb! The New Zealand glowworm is also bigger than the Australian species thus making filming a little easier!

What did you enjoy most about the work?

Definitely a career highlight for me was meeting and working sith Sir David Attenborough. As one of the world’s most influential documentary presenters and authors, Sir David has brought the natural world to so many people. You tend to think that he has been everywhere and seen everything, but he is still enthusiastic and obviously loves what he does as it comes across so clearly. The highly professional nature of each member of the two crews was astounding! I definitely learnt a lot about documentary making and I would like to thank: Producer Huw Cordey, Acting Producer Tim Green, Cameramen Kevin Flay and Alistair McKeown, and the NKH Producer/Director Masumi Masumoto and Cameraman Toshihiro Muta for their incredible work during the shoot.

What were the biggest challenges?

There were so many challenges I don’t quite know where to start! To begin with, we had to go a few hundred meters underground in a cold, damp cave to find the glowworms! – Not a great start for a potential studio! Caves are extremely fragile environments so our goal was to leave the cave looking as untouched as when we arrived. We had to move a lot of big, heavy equipment into the cave and keep that equipment dry in the wet, dripping air. Everything needed power so we had a number of methods of getting power into the cave. We did all of this while being mindful of any possible disturbance effects of our movement around the glowworms.

Once we had everything in place and ready to film, we had to deal with lighting. Glowworms like darkness and filming under lights would often stall or completely stop their behaviour. Voice vibration and air movement also affected our temperamental movie stars. Within a few hours of filming we had perfected our methods and over the entire shoot managed to get some incredible footage from this spectacular glowworm cave!

Do you have any amusing/interesting stories to tell about your experience assisting these film crews?

The thought of spending very long days (from about 4.30pm – 3.30am each day!!) in a damp, dark cave may not sound enticing to all, but for me, this experience was an absolute dream!! We shared many hilarious and memorable moments in one of the world’s most beautiful glowworm caves.

The unsinkable head torch!

During the first week of filming I managed to accidentally drop a fancy head torch (owned by cameraman Kevin) into the very cold river below us (We were using it as a decoy light to attract some mayflies and it popped off my helmet!). It was quickly swept downstream and I was resigned to the fact that I’d lost it. Not to be outdone by his cave, superhuman Peter Chandler, the “Spellbound” tour operator waltzed in dressed in a wetsuit and caving gear on the last night of filming. He promptly wrapped a roped tyre around his waist and swam down into the sump to retrieve the lost torch which surprisingly still worked perfectly despite being underwater for over a week!

Claire’s first hedgehog.

Driving the boat

One of the sequences involved recording glowworms from a boat that was moving through the cave. Although it may seem easy, directing a boat smoothly in the strong currents of these caves definitely requires some skill so it was once again up to Pete Chandler to save the day! Pete’s boat driving skills gave us the perfect start to the Planet Earth doco! The way we move slowly under the glowworms makes it feel a bit like a Star Wars movie!!

All the feral animals!!

One of the things that always surprises me when visiting New Zealand is the number of very healthy looking feral animals. On this trip, it was the hedgehogs that really stood out! Perhaps they were putting on a patriotic performance for David Attenborough and the rest of the English crew, but on one night alone we counted 11 hedgehogs on the way back from filming!