Sir David Attenborough at 90
On the eve of his 90th birthday, we talk to Sir David Attenborough about his illustrious career and spills the beans on his worst ever experience in the natural world.
You once said your job involved “swanning around”. On screen you certainly look like you’re having fun…
Having fun is not difficult. It’s one of the few talents I have – enjoying myself. So it’s obvious why you do this – you’re having a ball! People say: “But you’re so old. Why are you working?” Well, I’d pay to carry on doing what I’m doing!
What has been your worst experience in the natural world?
I can remember being stranded on Mount Roraima in the Venezuelan rainforest – it inspired Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World. We were filming on the summit [for The Private Life Of Plants] and we did the sensible thing, which was to go up by helicopter instead of carrying all our stuff. But this place attracts weather: it attracts clouds. And then we found we only had one tent, and there were about eight of us. And it started to rain quite heavily. There was bare rock with water sluicing across it, and we all just sat in the tent on top of one another. I remember that night very well – the torrential rain and that tiny two-man tent with all eight of us in it. At least we got the sequence. But the question is: did they use it? And the answer is no!
What extinct creature would you most like to meet?
Quetzalcoatlus. It was a pterosaur – a contemporary of the dinosaurs but with wings the size of an aeroplane. We make programmes about it, but the truth is we still don’t really know how it took off. I personally think it was a scavenger. It had a very curious neck where the vertebrae locked and became like a long rigid pole, with its long jaws at the end of it. And I think that was in order to get inside a Brontosaurus. If you look at vultures now, with their long, bare-headed necks, which they push into carcasses to pull out the guts… well, if you are going to pull the guts out of a titanosaur you have to be pretty damn big. So that’s what I think the long neck was for.
The David Attenborough Building (the new conservation campus at the University of Cambridge) opened in March. You must be proud!
It’s a funny business, having buildings named after you. But this offer was irresistible… Cambridge is the place where I first saw the diversity of the world. In biology at school I learned that there is a crayfish and a dogfish and a cockroach and a rabbit, and that was about it. Then when I came to Cambridge as a student in 1945, my eyes were opened. I remember one lecture on amphibians, focusing on the breeding strategies of frogs. I suddenly went: “Wow!” The adaptive radiation of frogs was just astounding.
You can read the full interview with Sir David Attenborough in the May 2016 issue of BBC Focus magazine.
Ben Hoare is a wildlife writer and editor, and proud to be an all-round ‘nature nerd’. He was features editor at BBC Wildlife magazine from 2008 to 2018, and after that its editorial consultant. Ben writes about seasonal natural-history highlights in every issue of the magazine, and also contributes longer conservation stories. His latest children’s book is 'Wild City', published in October 2020.