Our Polar Planet Photography Competition Winner 2023
Introducing our 2023 winner, Lucy Eckersley
“Our Polar Planet project, as part of Secret Atlas’ commitment to giving back, aims to provide opportunities for people who typically wouldn’t have the chance to visit the Arctic and directly benefit from them in their careers. Lucy was chosen because we felt she had a great portfolio and was also deeply committed to conservation. We hope that by supporting Lucy, she can communicate her transformative experience through her work and open new doors in her career.”
– Andy Marsh, Co-Founder
Meet Lucy, or better known as the Punk Biologist.
Lucy, huge congratulations on winning our first-ever Polar Planet Photography competition!
Firstly, tell us where did the name punk biologist come from?
While completing my Master’s at London Zoo, someone asked the taboo question ‘what do you want to do after graduating?’ and I replied ‘Be Steve Backshall, but punky-er’, and my new name was created. It’s also easier for people to remember and spell than my surname!
Tell us a little about yourself…
I’m a science presenter from North Manchester, now living in London, and I have been described as an irreverent biologist – someone who is passionate about the natural world but doesn’t take themselves too seriously. I’m the person who pulls a skull out of their bag at parties to explain how to identify predators and prey from their eye positioning or stands out in the garden watching swifts, cocktail in hand. I think the natural world should be for everyone and I’m passionate about improving access for everyone who wants to learn more.
How would you describe what you do?
Basically, I love animals and talking, and so I’ve found a job that combines the two! I am a science communicator, working specifically with underrepresented young people, who may have barriers to accessing things like university. I am trained as a wildlife biologist, with a particular focus on animal conservation, as well as an interest in behaviour and ecology, which are all aspects I bring into my presenting work. I have worked with super varied audiences including doing stand-up comedy about animals to over a thousand people, talking about ‘weird weather’ on Discovery, and leading a group of 15-year-olds in a debate about palm oil production.
What’s super interesting about your job and why?
New experiences and constant learning are two amazing parts of working as a science presenter, I get to meet people from around the world and learn from them as much as they learn from me. I have been amazed and surprised by the things teenagers I work with have come out with and the ideas and creativity they have. I’ve met researchers who live out in the Maasai Mara tracking cheetah, vet students studying designer dog breeds, and a kid from Mile End who was obsessed with hedgehogs, and they all had something brand new for me to learn.
What made you apply for the Polar Planet photography competition?
With my background, I don’t know many people who have gone into careers like wildlife photography, it’s a difficult area to get into, often requires unpaid work and expensive gear, and long times away from home. I do, however, know how to talk, and so I spoke to everyone I know who may have tips about getting into the field, ideas they could share, or contacts they could link me with. One chat resulted in the name of an old colleague who now works in Natural History filmmaking, who, after a few months due to clashing busy lives, agreed to have a chat with me over the phone, and followed up with a link to Secret Atlas’s competition with the line ‘worth a shot?’. Also, Secret Atlas’ ethos really aligns with my own, with small groups minimising environmental impact and ensuring participants ‘leave no trace’, which is extremely important for me considering humans impact on wildlife decline.
Can you tell us how it feels to have won the competition?
Honestly, I was really shocked, I always think it’s worth a go, entering competitions and putting yourself out there, but I really didn’t expect to be selected. Photography as part of wildlife conservation is really important to me, and so it was great to see that my answers to the competition resonated with the team at Secret Atlas. My partner of course never doubted my skills, but I wasn’t even sure I would be taken seriously, having not done this kind of a trip before. I’m really pleased to be able to share more of my passion for wildlife.
What is one of the most challenging parts of your job?
I have to be high energy, ready to talk for sometimes hours, and engaging to varied audiences including sometimes surly teens. Most jobs require some level of ‘enthusiasm’, and I definitely honed my capacity to ‘keep on smiling’ working in bars and restaurants, but these skills can be really put to the test when working for 10 hours a day, 7 consecutive days, hosting a ‘Gene Knockout’ nerf gun game at a science festival! I also have chronic migraines, meaning I basically have a migraine most days, which can be draining, demotivating and obviously painful!
What first sparked your interest in wild animals?
I’m not from a particularly biodiverse area of the globe, but there were enough birds and bugs in our north Manchester garden to spark a love of animals that has only grown in intensity. We hiked a lot when I was growing up, and we would play a game of ‘animal spotting’, deciding on arbitrary points for each of our observations. That game taught me to value the natural world, and started my now incessant habit of pointing out birds, bugs, fungi, trees and flowers to anyone within earshot.
What are you most excited about visiting Svalbard?
This is a really hard one, but I have to be predictable and go with Polar Bears! The opportunity to possibly see a polar bear in the wild is extraordinary, and not something I thought I would be able to do. Not only are they only found in inhospitable regions like Svalbard, but they are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and have dwindling numbers.
How do you think this expedition will benefit you and your goals as a biologist / photographer?
Svalbard is a place I’ve wanted to visit for years, since I read His Dark Materials as a kid and then found out this was a real place. It’s remote, inhospitable and feels otherworldly, and that plus the cost of getting and staying there, meant I never thought I would have the chance to visit. I am so excited to learn from the guides, Secret Atlas staff, and my fellow passengers more about the amazing landscape and wildlife, as well as camera techniques as I am entirely self-taught (and probably doing something wrong!). I am an artist in my spare time so I know what makes a good piece of art, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to take some fantastic images that will put me on the road to becoming a photographer, as well as being the basis for all gifts in the future (polar bear print coasters anyone?). I always try to make the absolute most of opportunities, and this I am hoping will be the start of a new chapter – someone will just have to tell me to go to sleep during the midnight sun while I try to cram in more landscape photography!
If you could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?
I think my passion, that’s what people tend to remember after talking to me. I’ve actually been told by a friend of a friend ‘You were talking about the decline of Scottish wildcats and I don’t remember a word, but I remember how excited you were to share’.
What are you expecting from Secret Atlas on this expedition?
I know that Secret Atlas are very passionate about sustainability and ensuring wild animal welfare, which is one of the reasons I applied to the competition in the first place. I have seen first-hand what unethical wildlife tourism can look like, and I am excited to see how Secret Atlas navigates this amazing landscape with the utmost respect to the inhabitants. I am also expecting some seriously expert knowledge from the guides, I’ll have to make sure I can take notes with my mittens on!
An important one – what’s your favourite animal?
Ah, easy – snow leopard! They are so enchanting and elusive, and I have serious respect for an animal that researchers camp out for years and maybe see the tail of. But if we break it down into animal orders, I have many more answers! Check out the Splendid Fairywren…
Where can people go to learn more about you?