Not emu-sed: Filming Australia’s wildlife and its challenges

After months of research we headed into the field, starting with a quest to find nesting emus. We knew male emus tend the eggs, barely moving over an eight-week incubation. Surely we could find a male on his nest?

National park rangers alerted us to emus they believed had begun nesting. Using a focal lens of 1000 millimetres, we could avoid disturbing the bird while still being able to get crisp vision of the male’s beak tip tenderly turning the eggs.

Finding a nest, we estimated that the male had only just begun incubating. So far, so good. We would return in two weeks for the lead-up to hatching day.

The largest remaining population of endangered Australian sea lions fishes the waters of the Great Australian Bight.

The largest remaining population of endangered Australian sea lions fishes the waters of the Great Australian Bight.Credit:Jon Shaw

Three days later the park ranger called us to report: “Eggs have hatched. Show’s over.” He thought it was hilarious. We were not emu-sed. No more nests had been spotted. The emus had moved on and nesting was effectively over. Emus do not appear in Magical Land of Oz.

After our big bird fail, we got luckier. Hunched in the snow, buffeted by icy winds, we were treated to not only a wombat emerging from its burrow, snuffling for unfrozen grass, but also an echidna. It had chosen the same moment to shuffle across the expanse of white, its feet sometimes disappearing through the recent dump of snow.

That pleasant prickly surprise took us on a journey we didn’t anticipate – creating a story that would have us following the echidna over seasons, from snow to melt to river crossing.

Next we hitched a ride with Sea Shepherd to Pearson Island in the Great Australian Bight. The region has been likened to the Galapagos – home to endemic animals with very little exposure to humans. The island inhabitants stared at us as we stared back at them from the deck of the Steve Irwin, which we couldn’t leave because of dangerous swells.

Palm cockatoos in the Top End.

Palm cockatoos in the Top End.Credit:Christina Zdenek

For four whole days we could only gaze in distant wonder, until one morning conditions improved enough for us to reach the shore. Not only did the populations of sea lions and rock wallabies have no fear of us, they were also filled with curiosity, allowing us to tell their story in half the time we had allocated.

In the Top End, palm cockatoos toyed mercilessly with us. We staked out their favoured perches before dawn and lay still until the sun rose and the mosquitoes came out to play. Australia’s largest and arguably most stunning cockatoos landed above our heads – just out of range of our lenses. The moment we silently shifted the lens, the birds were off, calling for us to chase them further through their range. Eventually they rewarded our tenacity, or tired of their game. Either way, unlike the emus, they allowed us to tell their incredible story.

Cameraman Jon Shaw films a whale shark at Ningaloo Reef.

Cameraman Jon Shaw films a whale shark at Ningaloo Reef.Credit:Adele Bennett

In the sea we grappled with stacks of spider crabs and almost got vacuumed into the mouths of stingrays. We crashed more than one drone. We got sunburnt, windblown and hypothermic. We got spat on, and worse. Poo, after all, is an occupational hazard.

Putting natural history on screen is a test of endurance, from the point of conception – when talking broadcasters into backing the project can take longer than the actual filming – through to the painstaking edit. Hundreds of hours of vision must be crafted into stories that do these complex animals justice. Their lives are far richer than most people realise. And, most difficult of all, their world is changing in both subtle and dramatic ways, and we must tell that tale too.

The impact of human-induced change was apparent in all the landscapes we worked across, no matter how remote. To exclude details of animals struggling on account of human activity would be to miss a big part of the story. So while we aimed to thrill with the glorious biodiversity still being discovered on this extraordinary continent, we also wanted to alert viewers to the threats these environments face.

Despite their uncanny abilities to outwit our camera traps and generally undo all our careful planning, we were filled with awe at the beauty of the animals we encountered. We came to understand the intricacy with which they exist.

Tosca Looby on location with Mareeba rock wallabies in Queensland's Granite Gorge.

Tosca Looby on location with Mareeba rock wallabies in Queensland’s Granite Gorge.Credit:Ralph Bower

We filmed bait balls exploding, parted by the bulk of a shark coming directly to camera. We saw spiders in stunning close-up, the wind tousling their leg hairs. Animals were revealed to us in places we didn’t think they went, behaving in ways we never thought possible.

We have come away with a deeper understanding of just how much there is to lose out there. It’s a message worth spreading. And more than ever, we know it’s worth it.

Tosca Looby is the director of Magical Land of Oz, screening on Sunday at 7.40pm on ABC TV and streaming on iview along with Making Magic, a series of shorts taking viewers behind the scenes.

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