Ancient Giants Guest Article

By Waldo Etherington

Forest canopies hold the largest abundance of terrestrial life on earth and are the most significant biological frontiers that science has yet to cross. 

It is possible, with the right training and equipment, to go where no man has ever gone before and see things that no one else has ever seen before! This is something that needs to be remembered.

Only the intrepid few have seen the extraordinary life in the treetops and many people lack the respect towards trees that should be inherent in every one of us.

Ancient Giants is a documentary that explores deep into the Chilean rainforest in search of some of the oldest trees on the planet, the Alerce tree, which lives for more than 3500 years putting on just a millimetre in girth each year and growing to more than 60m tall. The most colossal free standing natural structures on the South American continent! 

This film will follow three young explorers on a journey that will take them south of Puerto Montt and into the heart of the Los Lagos (Lake District) region of Chile. Based at a remote research station they will trek, unsupported, deep into the cloud forest carrying all the ropes and camera equipment necessary to climb the biggest Alerce trees known to man and to document the adventure in full HD. The objective view of what they encounter will be combined with a narrated cinematic exploration of the Ancient Giants themselves.

The history of canopy exploration is eccentric to say the least. From shooting down branches with shotguns to training monkeys to collect samples there has been a wide range of techniques employed. It wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists began to utilise mountaineering equipment to access the canopy, and this was often a very dangerous and expensive task.

Can you imagine going to the bottom of an unexplored ocean in a diving bell? Well this is very comparable to the first attempts at roped canopy access, aside from the fact that the canopy is home to much more life than can be found on the sea floor.

After years of technological advances in the tree climbing industry, we have a much more effective and safe means of roped access in unexplored trees.  The standard of training and the techniques used are also advancing rapidly.

The embryonic state of canopy exploration became apparent to Waldo after meeting two instructors from Canopy Access Ltd. He had left school and was volunteering on a research and conservation expedition in the cloud forest of Honduras. Canopy Access Ltd are the world’s leading experts on tree climbing in rainforest canopies, in Honduras they taught him how to access the top of an emergent tree (a tree that sticks out above the canopy) and shed the first light on what true canopy exploration entails.

After years of climbing big trees all over the world Waldo considers it of paramount importance that people are made aware of the full extent of life in the canopy and that the conservational aspects of forest management are placed at the forefront of government agendas world-wide.

In an effort to disseminate this information he has teamed up with Film maker Zak Bentley and tree climber and conservationist Ian Geddes, fortunately Zak has taken to tree climbing like a monkey and they are all made of the right stuff to commit wholeheartedly to this expedition.

As well as documenting the extraordinary life that they find in the canopy they will also be taking a look at deforestation in Chile and the measurements taken to conserve the trees. One of the biggest issues is that reforestation is taking place with non-native species of trees such as eucalyptus and Monteray pine. The government is stating that they are replacing the trees thus many people accept this and consequently take no further action. The large majority of people are unaware of the damage being done by this re planting method.

Monteray pines and Eucalypts are almost completely void of life in comparison to the Alerce trees, re planting the forests with these species is a double edged sword forcing the issues surrounding ancient forest loss under the radar.

To illustrate just how diverse the canopy can be, here is an account of  a tree that Waldo climbed whilst supervising research in the high canopy of the Daintry and Nothofagus rainforest in Australia. It was there that he first came across canopy gardens. Something they hope to document in Chile.

January 2007
“I had installed two lines up an exceptionally messy tree engulfed in a strangler fig, the sky was entirely obscured by the canopy and I had a feeling of sheer wonderment for this mighty organism as my feet left the floor and I began my ascent up this ancient tree. 

My ropes (fired up by a Bigshot catapult) had gone right through the centre of the busy tree and I had to squeeze and wriggle my way through a sea of vines, epiphytes, thorns and dead wood for around 40m of my vertical ascent. Sometimes elegance has to go out the window when you’re tree climbing.

Covered in mud, moss and twigs, I popped my head through a small gap and was immediately engulfed by the palpable heat of the Australian sun. The top of my tree had snapped out at about 45m and the branches, splaying off like an open hand in all directions, were supporting a dense habitat. Four of these upper limbs had rotted out and held an innumerable array of small trees, shrubs, orchids and other flowering epiphytes sprouting from every inch of soil. Each stem was veiled in an awning of wet moss and connected by a myriad of vines. The place was teaming with life! 

Butterflies fluttered around this sheltered 30m sq secret garden, spiders had slung their webs amongst the higher tangle of branches and beetles scurried away from my clumsy entrance hole. I was stunned. It seemed as though I could un-clip from my harness and walk around, and to be honest I probably could have! I had lost all site of my climbing companions on the forest floor below and I knew that I would be the only human ever to see this wild place. Not even in my dreams had I imagined such hidden beauty in the canopy and it was this experience that was to shape my entire career and lead me on to make the Ancient Giants documentary.”

People need to be exposed to the issues surrounding our ancient forests. If you would like to follow the progress of this expedition or support the project check out their website at


About paulreynolds87

I am the Wildlife Care Manager at Ensessakotteh in Ethiopia. I completed my first degree in BSc (Hons) Wildlife Conservation with Zoo Biology and then moved on to my MSc in Habitat Management and Conservation (Ecology).
This entry was posted in Terrestrial Conservation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ancient Giants Guest Article

  1. rovingrobyn says:

    Thanks for letting us know about this film. Really looking forward to seeing the results.

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