We speak to Steve Backshall, BAFTA-Winning explorer, naturalist and TV presenter on his passion for the great outdoors, his love of the Orca, some of his scariest moments and on having no regrets!
Adventurer, presenter, explorer, wildlife enthusiast, dare-devil and writer – which do you most identify with?
At my core – I’m a naturalist! I’m someone who loves going out, exploring, getting mud under my fingernails and looking at worms under the microscope. That’s the thing that switches me on more than anything. That’s where I’m most lost and caught up in the moment.
When did your love of animals and the great outdoors emerge?
I can’t remember ever not having this love. From three years onwards my family tell me that I was going through compost heaps looking for snakes eggs, wandering around picking up bugs and worms and being utterly into everything outside that let me get grubby and dirty. There has never been a point in my life when it hasn’t been my driving passion.
Did your school days play a role in shaping your future career?
No – actually the opposite. School was a pretty unhappy time for me. I went to a failing comprehensive school, where I lost my love of learning. No-one ever made the connection that with my love of wildlife I should be doing Biology. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I went back to university and did a Masters in Biology.
What advice can you give to aspiring young lovers of nature who want to make a career out of this passion?
Be reminded of the words by Frank Sinatra and ‘do it your way’! Looking around at all the people similar to me, like Chris Packham, Liz Bonnin, Lizzie Daly and Gordon Buchanan, not a single one of us has taken an established path. We’ve all found different and innovative ways of getting to where we wanted to go and it’s all been down to individual ingenuity and finding our own path.
Who inspired you the most?
There was one particular lecturer when I was doing my A Levels, who came along at the time when I’d lost all burning ambition for learning and could have gone down a totally different path. But he utterly caught my imagination and inspired me. He turned my life around and I went from being a failing student to a straight A student in a couple of months.
The most memorable dive you’ve made?
I think the first time I dived outside the cage with great white sharks in open water is something that I will never forget. It was one of those moments where everything you have learnt about an animal’s behaviour is turned on its head. You have to put your faith in your own learning and experience. It was the most uplifting and surprisingly joyous experience I’d ever had underwater.
The one sea creature that inspires you the most?
I’m a massive fan of the Orca (killer whale). They are so intelligent and have such sophisticated communication. There is still so much we have to learn about their lives and how they interact. There may well be several completely different species that don’t interact and that have different languages and ways of hunting. I find them utterly and endlessly fascinating and I’m definitely doing a big part of the show on the Orca.
What is the most challenging series you’ve made to date?
The attempt to make the first ever source to sea of the Baliem River in New Guinea was the most challenging. There were so many things that went against us, from a rampaging white water river, to warring tribes in the Highlands. We felt very vulnerable and a long way from help. We were there for two months and it was full on. I was very glad to be home at the end of it.
TV show you are most proud of?
I’m proud of many of my conservation programmes. Deadly 60 has probably had the most impact. Even today I still get young people coming up to me and saying watching Deadly ignited their love of animals. I’m proud to be a role model, to get kids involved in wildlife and if that’s all I achieve I will be very happy.
Do you have a Deadly No 1?
The Orca – deadly in their own world. Their sophisticated way of setting up their hunts and big brain processing power make them the perfect predator.
Time you were most afraid?
Lots of times. My first descent in Bhutan in the Himalayas when I very nearly drowned and was trapped under water for 4.5 minutes, that’s the closest I’ve come to dying. My life was saved by my paddle partner Sal Montgomery. I’d very recently become a father and my priorities had changed and all of a sudden there I was very close to nearly losing everything.
Most proud discovery?
There was a cave in Borneo that we re-discovered and inside were hand prints from our early ancestors dating back 40,000 – 50,000 years. This is the oldest figurative art in the world and it had never been seen in modern times until our expedition found it in these remote caves in the middle of the rainforest days from anywhere. It is something that I will never forget.
Three items you’d take to a desert island?
A good knife, Super Glue and a big box of matches!
When you do have time to relax, what do you like doing?
My wife and I have just been out for a two hour, 20km kayak on the river and that, I would say, is my main way of unwinding. It’s really good for clearing your head by just concentrating on your breathing and paddling. We live on a beautiful stretch of the River Thames and it’s just perfect for that.
Charity closest to your heart?
I work a lot with the World Land Trust – a charity that buys and retires big areas of tropical rainforest around the world. Often the forest will be handed back into the stewardship of the local people who will attach it to National Parks. It’s a really pragmatic and practical way of doing conservation. Over recent years we’ve raised millions and saved ten’s of thousand’s of acres of forest around the world. It’s something that you can really touch, feel and smell and it works really well for young people by getting them involved in buying their own section of rainforest. It changes these kids into conservationists and you can’t underestimate the importance of that. how powerful that is.
Can social media and nature work together?
It’s so important to get kids outside but at the same time you can’t tell them not to use any screens. You become an old fuddy-duddy without an understanding of the real world and then you lose your power and the ability to get a message across. What you have to do is find ways of making the outdoors, wildlife and adventure cooler than screen time. That’s the trick.
Motto you live by?
No Regrets! Just get on with it. If things go wrong then learn from it and treasure those mistakes as they will make you a stronger person in the future. Don’t waste your time by saying ‘if only’. That’s the most paralysing and pointless thing to do in life. Get on with it, get stuck in, make your mistakes and keep on going and you’ll find your way to a positive future.
What challenges left to conquer, goals still to realise?
Right now in this period of my life I think my priority is with my little ones and how their futures will play out. The challenge is finding adventures that we can all do together. My kids are still young and who knows what they will be like but right now they absolutely come alive when they are outside.
What’s the inspiration behind the Ocean Tour?
In the last decade I’ve done quite a lot of programmes which have been sea themed. I’ve done lots of work with sharks, whales and seals and I felt that really getting beneath the skin of oceanography and marine biology, telling the tales of our seas, (good and bad) could be brought to life by doing a show. The hard thing was finding a way to bring this vast great big blue and wet environment to the stage. It’s been challenging but we’ve come up with all sorts of stunts, tricks and techniques to bring the ocean to life.
Steve Backshall’s Ocean tour is a love letter to the most exciting environment on our planet. In this exciting show, Steve brings to the stage the wonders of the depths of the Big Blue featuring live experiments, big screens and thrilling sensory experiences. The tour will taking place between 2nd April – 8th May 2022. For tickets please visit: stevebackshall.com
Want more fantastic interviews like this? Check out the Noticed Spring ’22 issue! Read about the likes of Liz Earle, Phil Vickery, Charlie Bigham and Molly Mahon.