In 1988 the Hawke Labor government was preparing to ratify the Mineral Convention for mining in Antarctica. Environment groups, especially Greenpeace, were adamantly opposed to any mining in this remote and fragile part of the world. Executive producer Peter Manning commissioned reporter Tony Jones and producer Martin Butler to investigate. It was a memorable story in more ways than one.
A treacherous wave, an iceberg – and a skua!
By Martin Butler / 11 August 2021
In January 1989, from southern Argentina, we boarded a Russian cruise liner, with KGB officers in control, bound for the Antarctic peninsula. There were four of us in the Four Corners’ crew: cameraman Dave Maguire, sound recordist Eric Briggs, reporter Tony Jones and myself as producer.
On the first day of filming our Zodiac (a small inflatable for landing) was swamped by a wave which tore the outboard from its brackets, and we were in some trouble. We eventually transferred to another Zodiac in mid-ocean and landed safely on Elephant Island to start our filming. A worrying start.
Two days later there was a real treat – we saw a deep blue sculpted iceberg in the distance and steered closer. But just as we came alongside, large slabs of ice started falling off the side and then slowly (it was as big as a city block) this huge iceberg began to roll over.
As it flipped on its back, the entire iceberg disintegrated before our eyes. Or in our case before our cameras. Brilliant cameraman Dave Maguire had captured one of the most memorable pieces of Antarctic footage ever filmed.
For me the scariest moment came when we were filming a million-strong penguin colony. I was walking along a ridge line looking for a top shot of the penguins below. Suddenly I was confronted by a massive black bird (with a 2-metre wingspan), flying straight for my head. It was an Antarctic Skua, a species known for its aggressiveness, and I had to fling myself to the ground to avoid a big sharp beak in the face.
Every time I got to my feet, the same thing happened. I figured I must be too close to the skuas’ nest – by this time I’d become aware of my attacker’s equally defensive mate – and I was a sitting target on the ridge line. So I started descending on one side. This was a big mistake. There were very loose shaly stones and it was much too steep to safely descend. In fact, I quickly realised I was in serious trouble. I was perilously poised on this very steep slope and only able to stop myself from tumbling down by digging out hand and foot holds in the loose stones. I felt I couldn’t move, any attempts to do so would see me lose a grip and hurtle to my death.
I could see the rest of our group way down on the shore and, worryingly, they seemed to be loading up the Zodiacs and returning to the cruise liner. Surely they could see me and mount a rescue? As 20, 30 minutes passed only a few passengers remained and there had been no sign they’d seen me.
I realised I had to extricate myself, and I could see the two skuas either side of me, waiting. So very carefully I dug out new hand and foot holds, one at a time, and inched myself back to the ridge line. The skuas renewed their attack. By now, time was critical so I banked on them aiming for the highest point and swung my beanie furiously above my head and just marched on. The skuas touched the beanie several times, but I was right – no immediate threat to the head.
Tony Jones had informed the crew that I was missing, but they had not seen me on the mountain top. I survived – and so did Antarctica …
“Frozen Asset” was broadcast in March 1989. Within days the leader of the opposition, John Howard, announced he was changing policy to oppose the Mineral Convention. A few weeks later Prime Minister Bob Hawke followed suit, and Australia and France successfully led to the establishment of a moratorium on mining and the preservation of Antarctica as an international scientific enclave.
We all felt very proud to have played our part in this outcome.
* Footage from “Frozen Asset”, showing the massive iceberg breaking up, can be seen in the 1980s compilation on the ABC’s Four Corners 60 Years online celebration, at about 20 minutes in (20:12 to 23:11).
Martin Butler was a Four Corners producer from 1985 to 1991. He is known internationally as director/producer/writer (with Bentley Dean) of Contact, First Footprints, Tanna (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards), and A Sense of Self.