Photographer and filmmaker Ian Shive is known for documenting remote locations, and it doesn’t get much more remote than the Aleutian Islands. The chain of 2,500 islands jut off the coast of mainland Alaska and form a 1,200-mile (1,931-kilometer) arc in the Bering Sea. They are one of the most inaccessible, wild places in the world. Shive documented them in his latest special, The Last Unknown, which dropped on Discovery+ this week.
The archipelago formed tens of thousands of years ago when two tectonic plates met, pushing molten rock to the Earth’s surface and creating volcanoes that are part of the Ring of Fire. Today, there are 14 large volcanoes on the islands and 55 smaller ones. The islands are home to Indigenous communities who have resided there for generations, as well as a rich diversity of species, including orca whales, porpoises, sea otters, sea lions, seals, and tens of millions of seabirds. The islands are protected by their isolation, and also by their designation by the Fish and Wildlife Service as an Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
The only way to get to the Aleutian Islands is by boat, so to document the region, Shive and a group of FWS scientists spent weeks (split over two summers) on a research vessel, sailing around the archipelago. The result is a rugged, adventurous documentary that provides an up-close look at a rarely seen locale. Shive and his crew, for instance, were the first to ever film at the Bogoslof, a volatile active volcano where one of the largest northern fur seal colonies in the world reside. The crew also captured the first-ever high-definition footage of the military relics—like fox holes and a B-24 bomber plane —left on the islands when Japanese armed forces occupied two of the islands for one year during World War II.
The film, which is part of the show Nature in Focus, is full of stunning footage and serene, quiet moments, but is equally rife with adventure. It’s parts David Attenborough movie and 1990s Kratt Brothers TV show for kids. You can stream it now on Discovery+.
Earther spoke with Shive this week to learn more about the film. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Earther: What makes the Aleutian archipelago so special?
Ian Shive: Well, the archipelago is interesting because I think it gets often really overlooked. Alaska has cruise ships, Denali National Park, and the Kenai Peninsula, I mean it’s just a magnificent state. But the Aleutians, I think, somehow are always missed a little bit. For me, it was super appealing to say, hey here’s this other place that I can explore.
The topography of the place is also really, really different. It’s volcanic. There’s over 80 volcanoes that make up the northern edge of the Ring of Fire, so on the Aleutian Islands, you get an unusual mix of landscapes that you won’t see in those other well-known other parts of Alaska.
Because they’re volcanic, they’re constantly in flux. So, there’s 2,500 islands and they’re all mapped out, as we learned on the boat, there’s a lot of islands that are newly reshaped. And some might even be completely new and are just popping out. Or there may be one island that soon might be two islands. There’s a lot of changes and a lot of dynamics happening geologically, that make it very exciting.
Earther: Could you talk more about that dynamism of the region? The film makes it clear that the islands change a lot. Do we know how much of those are based on healthy, natural processes, and how much of it is because of changes caused by humans?
Shive: One of the points of these expeditions is to try and assess the health of wildlife populations which are a broader indication of the health of their ecosystems, and then also of the health of the oceans and the global health of the climate. And you can’t just make one trip to find that out.
From this trip and my other trips, I’ve learned that nature is very intricate and complex, and that the details that indicate whether something is doing well or not doing well aren’t always obvious to us. One of the things we were looking at on this trip to the Aleutian Islands is creating long-term datasets, going to the same few spots year after year after year, because that’s where trends emerge. It’s the trends that really give us a good picture of what’s going on in environment.
The seabirds of the Aleutian Islands are probably greatest indicator of the health of the whole ecosystem because they rely on the ocean for their food and also because there’s millions of them in this protected area, in the national wildlife refuge. And so, by going to this place and seeing how the seabirds are doing, we’re able to get millions of samples that say, “here’s how this is doing.”
In terms of the impact of outside society, during World War II, when some crafts landed on the island, they brought some rats with them.
Shive: Yeah, and rats eat bird eggs so they can decimate current populations. A decade before we went out there, a team of people went out and tried to eradicate the rats. But we didn’t know if it worked, until now. We went back to these wayward ships and on one island, we did discover that it was successful, that the rats are gone at least where we went.
But to get rid of rats on a remote island is an incredibly difficult thing, and so we’re trying to learn what kind of impacts we had on these places whether we realize it or not. There’s the big things like climate change that are affecting ecosystems everywhere and all the other challenges facing the oceans, but there’s also those kinds of local things.
Earther: The islands are protected by the U.S. government. What do those protections afford them? What else could be done to protect the Aleutians?
Shive: The majority of the Aleutian Islands are protected by the federal government. Their designation is as a national wildlife refuge. Unlike a national park, where it’s the preservation for future generations of people that’s important and given priority, wildlife refuges are wildlife first. So it’s not about human experience, it’s about making sure that we’re protecting wildlife, and that we’re taking this incredibly vital habitat, and ensuring that the wildlife are able to continue nesting and breeding and doing all the things that they rely on these places to do.
Unlike other places I’ve been, though, they don’t have an overlying protection. They’re not protected as a marine national monument, for instance. In the past, there have been some proposals to extend protections further out. Like, could we protect not just most of the islands and some of the surrounding waters, but a much larger swath of surrounding waters to ensure that the whole ecosystem is afforded all of those protections? I think that’s something that’s really interesting to be explored.
That said, the refuge is not only protected by its designation, but unlike a lot of other places in the U.S., it’s also protected by remote isolation. Getting out into the Bering Sea is hard. That gives these islands a certain level of protection, just by the sheer nature of of where they’re located.
But then again, a lot of the species that rely on the islands are migratory. They’re a really important stop for migrating birds. Even though there may be nesting there or breeding there, they may be travelling from other places that aren’t protected, and those other places could be affecting their health. The fur seals, for example, spend time in the Aleutians in the Bogoslof volcano where we filmed. But they are also connected to continental states like California. They may travel 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) to Los Angeles during migration. I live in Los Angeles. It’s a wild thought that I was that far away in one of the most remote places on Earth on an active volcano looking at a fur seal, and that I may have seen that same seal on a beach in Malibu. All of these different worlds are with our everyday lives, which is just yet another reason why protection is so important.
We don’t realize how connected all of these different worlds are with our everyday lives, which is just yet another reason why protection is so important.
Earther: I guess in a sense you were also migrating! Could you talk a little bit about the actual process of getting to the Aleutian Islands? You describe it at one point in the film as a “brutal” journey.
Shive: It was. I have a renewed respect for the scientists who make this trip every season and for a lot longer than I did. Once you get to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, which in itself is not exactly the most populated part of the world, you would embark on the research vessel, which is a small ship. You go out on this small ship, and you get beat up pretty much. The thing is being thrown around roughly, it’s never really over 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius), it’s almost always misty, or there’s light rain, you’ve got salty seawater splashing over the edge of the boat. You’ve got these big coats on all the time and you know if you fall into the water, you’ve got to get out pretty fast before hypothermia might set in.
In many ways, for where it is, it’s a real luxury. You get three hot meals a day that are prepared fresh. Unless, of course, it’s too rough on the water to cook, which happens, but almost always there’s good food on there. But even when you get to the beaches, there’s no dock, there’s all this kelp to get through, you’re riding out on a tiny little skiff boat that can get flipped by a wave. Or your engine can get caught in the seaweed, I’d say that happened a lot, like nine out of 10 times.
And then you get there to the islands and it’s boulders that are ankle breakers. So you’re trying to get off the boat through these boulders with 400 pounds of camera gear or science equipment. We all help each other. But then then there’s no trail on the island, so you might be dealing with shoulder high grass that’s also wet. And you’re trying you to find an area where you can deploy scientific instruments. We do all of this like three or four times a day. We call it The Last Unknown but it’s not just the place that’s unknown. It’s the situations that we’re placed into, at the hands of so many variables where so many things could happen. You never really know what you’re getting into.
Earther: But it was worth it?
Shive: It was the trip of a lifetime.