Rottnest Island; home to the adorable Quokkas, relaxing getaway vibes and the perfect snorkelling spots. Hopefully, most West Australians have had the chance to dip their toes in the sparkling waters of Salmon Bay, survived heatstroke after long bike rides around the island or even been lucky enough to snap a Quokka selfie.
Rottnest Island has a long history dating back to the 17th century when European explorers discovered the island. However, it wasn’t until the 1900s Rotto was thought to be used as a tourist destination and it has come a long way to be the beloved island holiday we know today. As for the wildlife, they’ve been there since day one, the Quokkas responsible for the island’s name. When Dutch explorers arrived, they thought the animals were giant rats hence the Dutch translation meaning ‘rats nest’. Rottnest Island: Kingdom of the Quokkas reveals the unseen and secretive life of the island’s wildlife as well as the unique and harsh environment they call home.
Narrated by Logie award-winning actor William McInnes, produced, directed and written by four-time Emmy Award nominee Leighton De Barros along with his partner Jodie De Barros and Jonathon Rowdon from WA’s Sea Dog TV International, the documentary is a high contender against the likes of feature documentaries by David Attenborough.
How could you not love that beautiful face?
Ahead of the film’s short season at The Backlot Studios in Perth, Leighton De Barros found some time to speak with Grok and answer our questions.
De Barros has close to 30 years’ experience in the television industry as a producer, director, writer and cinematographer. His love for photography and spending time outdoors surfing as a kid encouraged him to pursue his passion as a career. “Eventually I got a job at GWN7, producing commercials and other styles of programs and moved the skills I learnt to wildlife [filming] which is what I was interested in,” De Barros says.
Realising there was a market for wildlife film production in Western Australia, De Barros established Sea Dog TV International with his wife Jodie De Barros in 2007. “WA is very different to the rest of Australia and being close to the place where you want to work is always helpful, so we saw a potential and established that company to produce wildlife films, pretty much in WA because nobody was really doing it full time,” De Barros says. He has won more than 15 industry awards and worked on many films broadcasted on Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet, ABC TV and the BBC just to name a few. Some of Sea Dog’s completed projects include Bushfire Wars, Dolphin Dynasty, Birthplace of the Giants and Wildlife Rescue & Forensics.
Rottnest Island plays a big role in WA history and tourism and De Barros says a stop off on the island four years ago after working on a film about the Parks and Wildlife whale disentanglement team inspired him to create the documentary. “We stopped on Rotto to get some fuel and happened to see the environment manager there. I knew there was a lot of interest in Quokkas but we thought nobody’s done a pure, natural history film on those islands or spent a lot of time on them filming.”
“We thought it would be wonderful if we documented the lifecycle of the animals on each island,” he says.
Male Humpbacks head slap when trying to show their strength and assert their dominance over other males.
Historians believe Rottnest Island separated from mainland Western Australia 7000 years ago. The sea level rose, cutting the island away from the main landmass, forming a chain of islands to what we now know as Rottnest, Penguin and Carnac Islands. Originally premiering on National Geographic in December 2018, Rottnest Island: Kingdom of the Quokkas portrays the iconic hotspots in a different light and exposes the mysterious and tough lifecycles of the animals we aren’t normally privy to. The film has been received well and De Barros says it is being distributed around Europe and Asia with China’s equivalent to Netflix picking it up. “So, it’ll be seen in a lot of places which is good for the tourism market but also it’s good as a conservation thing.” The screenings at The Backlot provide an opportunity for locals to see the film on the cinema screen, “…it’s nice to see it on the big screen because it was shot in 4K and its almost like a feature film with the music, photography and stories,” De Barros says. Along with the screenings, the film and an educational study guide will be made available to 50, 000 schools around Australia providing an enriching and educational resource.
While the adorable, furry Quokka––dubbed the happiest animal on Earth––takes the spotlight, the film also showcases the life of the Little Penguins from Penguin Island, the venomous Tiger Snakes of Carnac Island as well as the Humpback Whales, Bottlenose Dolphins and the incredibly rare Australian Sea Lion. Each if these species are majestic in their own way and the footage the film crew has captured is absolutely stunning. Filmed in cinema-quality 4K video including slow motion, starlight and infra-red cameras, the audience will really experience something they have never seen before. De Barros says they captured behaviour even scientists and researchers haven’t witnessed. “…Particularly the Quokka behaviour that no one had seen, we even got the Humpback Whales what we think is mating off Rottnest Island and I don’t think that’s been recorded before.”
“It’s like anything, if you’re in place for a long time you observe a lot, we even had some of the little birds landing on us, which was lovely you know, as long as they didn’t do a poo,” De Barros laughs.
Carnac’s remarkable residents also include a population of native Australian Sea Lions.
Rottnest Island is a high saline environment with low nutrients creating a harsh place to live for its wildlife inhabitants. The film stresses just how tough the Quokkas really are as they struggle through the scorching summer heat with little or no water. De Barros says he was surprised by many behavioural aspects of the wildlife especially the Quokkas. “We got a lot of really good behaviour like them climbing trees and regurgitating [their food]. We got a lot of Quokkas fighting, a bit like Bruce Lee but fatter and furrier and a lot of aggressive behaviour which people don’t see a lot.”
Filmed over three years, the filming schedule consisted of spending certain amounts of time at the different locations. There was also an intensive five-six-month period with De Barros living on Rottnest. He says the daily process of filming involved getting up early to film the Quokkas before heading out on the boat to film the whales with the rest of the day taken up with filming the Osprey and Quokkas again.
Filming and documenting wild animals is sure to have its fair share of challenges. However, De Barros says the physical activities that come with spending time on Rottnest were the most difficult. “Spending a lot of time filming on the ocean is wearing and is probably one of the hardest things you can do, particularly with whales you can’t dive with them, so we have to use pole cams.” Carting around dive gear, scrambling down cliffs, managing pesky drones and dodging Tiger Snakes are some more obstacles De Barros and his team had to overcome––staying away from the bakery and its delicious pastries included.
Leighton De Barros hopes viewers will find a newfound or continued respect for the animals at Rottnest and the surrounding islands. “I suppose it’s more so with the Quokka, just back off with the selfies, back off on the interaction with them and give them a bit of space because Rottnest is a tough environment to live in along with the added human pressures,” he says. Watching the full lifecycle of some of WA’s most wonderful creatures is something that cannot be missed and it truly is incredible to learn so much about the Quokkas, Osprey and Little Penguins.
There are up to nine breeding pairs of ospreys on the island at various times throughout the year.
So, what’s next for De Barros and Sea Dog TV? “We’re producing a film for Nat Geo on snakes now, we’ll go into a second series of Bushfire Wars and then we’ve got a massive blue-chip film on all the wildlife in WA, a very big theatrical film with a live orchestra,” De Barros says.
But for now, go and enjoy the beauty of Rottnest Island and its residents, you’re bound to see it in a new light the next time you and your family pile off the ferry. Take De Barros’ advice, observe from a distance, back off on trying to achieve the famed Quokka selfie and if you spot any of the animals just remember they don’t live the easy-going lifestyle you might imagine.
“I think the film is quite beautiful with the footage and music but there are three really good family stories. The Quokka family, the Osprey family and the Little Penguin family and we’re all family orientated and [you get] to see how these small families survive in harsh conditions,” De Barros says.
Rottnest Island: Kingdom of the Quokka is screening at The Backlot Studios in Perth on August 17th, 24th and 31st!