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By Melissa StewartDecember 22nd 2020

If you're looking for something wintery to watch this festive season head to BBC iPlayer and watch Stormborn – a wildlife series featuring footage from Shetland. We caught up with drone operator Nick McCaffrey who shared his experience of working on the series.

Stormborn is a three-part wildlife series that recently appeared on BBC One. Narrated by actor Ewan McGregor, it charts the lives and struggles of animals living in the harsh climates of the North. Made by Maramedia, the same production company that produced last year's successful Wild Shetland series, it captures footage of otters, arctic foxes, grey seals, orca whales, and puffins, surviving in the remote, northern edges of the Atlantic Ocean.

Filming for Stormborn took place in Iceland, Norway and Scotland, including Shetland. Maramedia once again recruited local natural history experts and filmmakers Brydon Thomason and Richard Shucksmith, alongside drone camera operator Nick McCaffrey to capture some spectacular footage of Shetland's natural wildlife and spectacular coastlines. Shetland footage appears in all three episodes of Stormborn, although in episodes 2 and 3 it is referred to simply as Scotland.

"Most of my footage was linked to the drone shots of orca and, in particular, shots of the neesic (aka harbour porpoise) hunt sequence in episode 1," says Nick. "There are a number of drone shots of neesics in the build up to that story that I captured too.

"Wildlife sequences are very challenging things to put together, you only have moments to capture a behaviour and you often only have one camera angle to do that with. With orca, when you’re shooting from the shore you have to make an educated guess where to put yourself in terms of the orca’s predicted course and try to predict what predator and prey will do. You also have to try guess where any action may happen and then, from that, try put yourself in a position where you can maximise your chances of capturing that specific moment. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t."

The job of the wildlife filmmaker might seem glamourous but it takes a lot of planning and patience, particularly in a place like Shetland where the weather and conditions can be so unpredictable. You have to be quick to act if the wildlife you wish to film is sighted, while at the same time be prepared to wait for hours to capture the perfect shot.

"Filming Orca hunting behaviour is extremely challenging," says Nick. "You can stay with a pod for most of a day and observe what seem to me ‘moods’. Sometimes they seem to be in a flat-out hunt mode and other times they just appear to be cruising around. So many variables have to come together to capture a shot, the weather has to be good, the sea conditions have to allow for clear footage and you have to guess not only what an unpredictable predator is going to do, but also figure out what its prey is likely to do in response. Then you have to think about where to put yourself to give you the best chance of actually capturing anything.

"You often have to haul your gear some distance over headlands or peat bogs to try get to the ideal location. You can walk for hours and drive many miles in a day. My gear often entails two drones, controls and as many batteries as I can manage. It's heavy and in the peak of summer it can be exhausting and the days are very, very long."

Being local gives people like Richard, Brydon and myself a huge advantage. We get a lot of help from fellow experts and enthusiasts as well as the wider Shetland community, we know the road networks intimately, we know many local farmers and land owners and we all have detailed knowledge of our local shores. This saves a lot of time when time when things are happening fast!

Of course, when it all comes together, the natural high you get when you see mammals in their natural habitat doing something dramatic or unpredictable is extremely rewarding and makes all the effort worthwhile.

"For me, the highlights will always be getting up close to the world's apex predator. I’m still blown away by how close you can actually get to orca in Shetland," says Nick. "When they are hunting inshore you can find yourself only metres from such huge animals and time stops for me every time that happens (I’ll confess to forgetting to film a couple of times!).

"Managing to pull together the footage required for the orca/neesic sequence was a massive achievement. The chances of even witnessing such an event are rare and yet, as a team, we managed to get everything together to create an incredible sequence.

It’s hard to watch, but this is how the natural world works and the daily struggle to survive only becomes more apparent the more I observe the animals around us in Shetland.

In a year of ongoing anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, watching nature do its thing in a series like Stormborn can be a really grounding experience. It reminds us that despite the challenges we face the world keeps turning and the circle of life continues.

For Shetland, the exposure of featuring in another BBC wildlife series is great for the islands' public profile and firmly cements our reputation as a top wildlife tourism destination.

"Productions like this showcase what visitors can expect to see while in Shetland," explains Nick. "Although the wildlife can be unpredictable, a production like Stormborn gives people a flavour of the amazing landscapes and the raw beauty of Shetland. This in turn influences people to learn more about our islands and often this leads to travel aspirations.

"There can be little dispute that TV coverage of Shetland, in all its formats, leads to increased tourism and some of those tourists fall in love with the place and become residents. For our local economy, tourism brings huge investment and helps create jobs and prosperity for our communities. For those that chose to stay, many bring valued skills and help ensure our industries continue to grow from strength to strength.

"Beyond the economic benefits to our communities, the coverage of our wildlife helps strengthen the importance of protecting it and brings to the fore the need for more research and study to better enable us to understand the health of stocks and the impacts of climate change as well as the multitude of other pressures on wildlife, not just in Shetland, but across the globe.

"Any media coverage of Shetland helps keep it on the map. Blue chip productions like Stormborn show the level of confidence big production companies have in investing in these projects, knowing that Shetland will deliver something the public want to see. That personally makes me feel very privileged that people all around the world want to see the beauty and wilderness of what I call my home."

All images courtesy of Nick McCaffrey, Southspear Media

Stormborn is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer