KOTA KINABALU, March 29 — From scuba diving in clear tropical waters which offer some of the best and most diverse underwater life to close encounters with some of the world’s rarest wildlife in Sabah’s rainforests, Briton Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski has an envious and dreamy job.
But as the host of Borneo Wildlife Warriors, a new web series that pays homage to the Sabah’s wildlife, his life started in a very different world altogether.
Eight years ago, Gekoski was busy living the London high life in the world of modelling, driving fast cars and attending glamorous parties. Until an existentialist wake-up call at the age of 28 made him turn his life around.
“There definitely was one of those lightbulb moments people talk about. I just looked in the mirror one day, and I saw all my life cluttered with shallow, material things. I had a mortgage, a fancy flat, fast car, a successful business, and was attending stupid model parties.
“I just thought it was all gross and didn’t like the person I had become. I needed a change. I was also inspired by the movie Into the Wild, although I hate admitting it, and the character’s ideals of going back to nature,” the 36-year-old told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
In an effort to do some soul-searching and overhaul his life, Gekoski then travelled to South-east Asia, where he soon discovered scuba diving, and in the process, rebooted his passion for life.
Not long after, he totally packed up his belongings in London, left his glitzy company and enrolled in wildlife film school for a whirlwind month, learning as much as he could to begin his new career or life mission as a photojournalist/filmmaker/adventurer.
What followed in the next few years were incredible environmental experiences, where Gekoski recorded, photographed and told stories of human wildlife conflicts, rarely seen animal behaviour and raised awareness for the most endangered of species.
He counts being charged at by wild elephants in northern Mozambique, living on a commercial tuna fishing boat, swimming among killer whales and bull sharks, taking shark selfies and being chased by African seal clubbers as some of his more memorable moments.
The most horrifying moment, however, was when he was filming a religious festival in Bangladesh called Kali Puja where tens of thousands of freshwater turtles are killed and eaten annually.
“In the same way Christian’s eat turkey for Christmas, the Hindu community ate these turtles. What angers some conservationists is the way the animals — many critically endangered — are killed; chopped up alive in an alleyway and then sold to customers as bags of writhing meat.
“It was the worst thing I have ever seen; severed heads being kicked into gutters, blood and eggs everywhere. I couldn’t get the images out of my mind for a long time,” he said.
After travelling across continents taking photographs and writing articles for publications like the including National Geographic Traveller and BBC Wildlife, he has found a permanent-temporary base in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah where he has been for two years now.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sabah is one of the most special places on the planet for wildlife. There aren’t many places where you can see orang-utans and elephants one day and then huge numbers of turtles and sharks the next,” he said.
Gekoski was engaged by award-winning production company Scubazoo as their in-house presenter, and has been telling stories of Sabah’s underwater life in a web series called Borneo from Below.
His latest venture — Borneo Wildlife Warriors — moves into its forest wildlife, where he has to learn the ropes of becoming a wildlife rescue ranger and the trials and tribulations that the team of rangers and vets undergo as they come to the aid of animals caught in human conflict zones.
Gekoski said that the six episode web series is made with environmental education in mind, but with entertainment value to avoid the dreaded connotation of ‘conservation.’
“There is definite sense of pride here for Sabah’s natural treasures and people seem to be getting more interested in conservation. But for some reason, ‘conservation’ is still viewed as a dirty word in the media.
“Mention it to broadcasters and they run a mile! It’s all “deadliest this…” and “scariest that”. There is a lot of sensationalist rubbish out there and it drives me up the wall. We can still tell environmental stories, but do it in an entertaining way. So I decided to try and plug a gap in the market — I call it ‘funservation’,” he said.
Gekoski counts his attempts at “man skills” — carpentry and building — as among the show’s funny moments.
But the crux of the show is the Wildlife Rescue Unit’s incredible work rescuing animals that is far more complicated than what people realise.
“I think the show highlights how much work goes into each rescue, especially relocating a elephant, that takes a lot more planning and work,” he said.
To catch Bertie’s work with Scubazoo, click here.
To watch episode 2 of the web series, go here.