An award- winning photographer, journalist, presenter, adventurer, travel writer and film maker, Aaron ‘Bertie’ Gekoski has some impressive credentials! But far from having grown up behind the lens, Bertie has a surprising backstory and journey to success. We talked to him about bold career moves, his goal to make conservation cool and throwing caution to the wind.
Diver with Great White, Gansai.
Thanks for chatting to us Bertie. Firstly, where are you and what are you currently working on?
I am currently the in house presenter for Scubazoo, one of the biggest underwater production companies in the world. After nearly 20 years of filming blue-chip documentaries for the likes of the BBC and National Geographic, Scubazoo wanted to start producing and hosting their own content. Based out of Borneo, slap bang in the heart of the Coral Triangle, they’re sitting on a diamond mine of incredible stories.
I met CEO Simon ‘Pieman’ Christopher a year and a half ago who recruited me to present their first online series, Borneo from Below. Having just filmed 27 episodes for series one, we are just starting production on series two. I’m also presenting a new series, Borneo Wildlife Warriors, which follows the work of the Wildlife Rescue Unit. It’s been a crazy few months of tattooing orang-utans, feeling for croc’s testicles up their anus (don’t ask), tending to pangolins, getting chased through the plantations by pygmy elephants and more!
3 Cheetas, Nambia.
How did you initially get into photography- was it always something you wanted to do?
I actually used to own a modelling agency in the UK, but then decided that life wasn’t for me…essentially swapping one shark for the other! I’ve always just been a huge fan of wildlife documentaries, so six years ago enrolled to do a wildlife filmmaking course at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Then I went to Mozambique and met some guys shooting a documentary about shark finning who needed a photographer. So I bought a camera and taught myself how to use it. I assisted them for a couple of years and then went on to look at other wildlife stories across Africa as a photojournalist, focusing on wildlife crime and human/animal conflict.
I went on missions to expose the seal cull in Namibia, pursued the tortoise mafia through Madagascar’s forests, trained as an anti- poaching ranger in Zimbabwe, lived on a commercial tuna fishing boat in South Africa and more. I hope that my work as a photojournalist – and now presenter – will help educate others on the global plight of endangered animals.
You mentioned before you had a very different career back in London. It must have been a pretty daunting decision- did you have any major concerns prior to selling the business, or were you 100% sure that it was something you wanted to do?
Well no, it was a huge move for me. I was a guy living in London with a really cushy lifestyle, a decent car and a nice flat… I wasn’t exactly accustomed to life in the wild! I’d never done any hardcore travelling, I was a model agency owner and used to work in advertising as a copywriter. However, I’d always harboured these romantic ideals of heading off into the sunset with a camera on my back. So it was a daunting prospect to completely change my life around, leave all my family and friends and the security of a well-paid business where I was having a lot of fun. But I was 28 years old and I just thought if I’m going to do it at all, if I’m going to fulfil these ridiculous fantasies then I’ve got to do it now.
You mentioned in your Men’s Health Article that initially you were faced with queries from your friends of, ‘When are you going to come back to real life?’ Do they still say this now, and if so how do you respond?
Well a number of my friends think that I’m just backpacking! People are always saying ‘how’s travelling going?’ and I’m thinking… ‘Are you kidding me?’ I work my arse off for often very little money, often put myself in dodgy situations and frequently work under tough conditions . But I think people are starting to get it now. My friends and family know how much happier I am, how much of the world I’ve seen, the interesting projects I’ve worked on and the great characters I’ve met. I’ve had more experiences in these last few years than most do in a lifetime, so feel extremely fortunate.
So any advice for anyone thinking of leaving a job they’re not so passionate about, if they were sitting in your shoes?
A lot of people don’t make major changes out of fear and the need for security. Rather than fantasizing about leading another life, why not get out there and do it!? Throw caution to the wind – if it doesn’t work out just go back home again! At least that way you’ve tried and probably had some great experiences in the process. I can safely say it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Elephants in procession, Hwange, Zimbabwe.
Besides filming and presenting for Scubazoo, you’ve worked on countless other amazing projects for some very important causes. It must be satisfying knowing that you are one of the people actually making a difference and raising awareness about these issues. Are there any stand-out moments when you have felt like progress is being made?
It’s been about small victories. For example, we shot a film on shark-finning in Mozambique that contained a segment about the toxicity of shark meat and how it could be poisoning local fishermen and their families. We did screenings of the film in small villages around Mozambique, and when we came back six months later, the fishermen had all stopped eating shark meat because of the information contained in our film.
Another project I did – shark selfie – involved taking selfies in front of sharks to raise awareness for shark conservation. It was pretty hairy having 50-60 sharks feeding around my head! But the images appeared in the worldwide press and gave me a vehicle to talk about the threats facing sharks.
Shark being carried before being finned, Mozambique.
So has wildlife and conservation always been a passion of yours, or has it developed as you spent more and more time in these environments?
Interestingly I was never even allowed pets as a kid, so I always lived vicariously through wildlife documentaries. I would watch films about the ocean and diving with the biggest and most impressive animals in the world and imagine myself there. I hadn’t experienced much of the wild, or diving until my late 20’s but the more I learned about the ocean, the more I wanted to help. Our seas are warming, polluted, rising and catastrophically overfished. And people need to know about this.
Conservation is seen as a dirty word in the media, but I think you can get these stories across but still do it in an entertaining way. I call it ‘funservation!’. I don’t take myself too seriously on camera (unless the situation calls for it) and people seem to have responded well to the style. My shows are a kind of Top Gear/Really Wild Show hybrid…the aim is to get children and Joe Bloggs invested in conservation.
So do you have a favourite animal or species after all these years working with them?
The more you understand an animal, the more you grow to appreciate it. Having filmed numerous species of sharks around the world and written extensively on the issue of shark finning, I have grown rather fond of these misunderstood, toothy predators. Thankfully, the shark conservation movement is gathering momentum. I just hope it’s not too late.
Can you describe an average day working with Scubazoo?
Say we’re doing a film about cuttlefish for Borneo from Below… we’ll spend a day or so beforehand scripting and storyboarding it and coming up with ideas to make it entertaining, before spending a day or so filming them. On shoot days we might get up at 6am, have a morning double dive, change batteries and check gear over lunch, have another dive or two after lunch, then review footage over dinner, before transferring it over to hard drives. This might not finish until 10pm. Our director, Will, is renowned for working 16 hour days, 7 days a week. Me, I like to sneak in a sneaky nap (or two) during the day…diving and filming in the heat can be exhausting!
Finally…would you liken yourself to any animal? If you had to what would it be?
Difficult one….maybe a seal. On land I’m pretty clumsy and love nothing more than basking in the sun, eating the odd fish and sleeping. Oh, and barking at anyone who disturbs me. But I come alive underwater. It’s where I feel at home.