In his new series A Perfect Planet, Sir David Attenborough focuses as much on landscapes and the forces that shape them as he does on wildlife. Sarah Marshall checks out the locations
Over the past six decades, Sir David Attenborough has shared stories of exotic creatures from across the globe. But in 2020, like so many of us, he spent time studying a habitat closer to home: his garden.
"I can't actually remember taking three walks a day as I did almost every day this spring," says the resident of Richmond, London. "I was more aware of flowers opening, buds forming, birds arriving, than I have ever been. It was amazing."
From the blazing sun fuelling our earth with energy to weather patterns that continuously reshape the landscape, powerful phenomena have made Earth a warm and stable environment - the perfect place to live. These earth sciences are the subject of the new natural history series A Perfect Planet, screening on TVNZ. Produced by Silverback Films and narrated by Attenborough, the five episodes study in turn volcanoes, oceans, weather, the sun and humans.
We see camels in the Mongolian desert quenching their thirst from Siberian snowdrifts; lizards opting to incubate their eggs in the base of active volcanic craters; and aquaphobic crabs that breed in the sea. But along with celebrating the wonders of our wild world, the series considers its fragility, summed up in the final episode which focuses on the youngest, strongest and potentially most destructive force of nature: humans.
"The planet I saw as a young man has changed beyond recognition," says Attenborough. "If the Arctic melts, seas will rise and flood cities. This is not H G Wells. It's not science fiction."
But as with our flourishing appreciation of nature born out of a pandemic, there is hope. "We still have a chance to stop it happening," he says. The first step is to understand the forces that shape our existence by discovering extraordinary habitats more mesmerising than the animals that live there. Here is our guide to the key locations.
Species have evolved and acclimatised to forces of nature over millions of years but there is one superpower so dominant it could destroy everything: us.
"There are three times as many human beings on this planet than when I first made a television programme," says Attenborough, who presents the final episode of the series with a marine biologist, an economic economist and a climate scientist. Our growing population of consumers now produces more carbon than all Earth's volcanoes combined, accelerating a mass extinction event of a magnitude not seen in 65 million years.
But there is a chance to redeem ourselves. "There's great inspiration to be found in those fighting to save endangered species and dwindling habitats," says episode producer Nick Jordan, who shadowed the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an organisation working to rewild elephants orphaned by severe droughts and flooding.
"When you spend time with a playful, innocent and curious baby elephant that has lost its mother, you cannot but help ask yourself, how have we let our planet get into such a state?"
Lembeh Strait, Indonesia
Although five oceans wrap our Blue Planet, they belong to one body of water. A highway of currents, rich in nutrients, feeds lifeforms so curious they could belong in outer space. One colourful character is the male flamboyant cuttlefish, a 5cm-long master of camouflage, which impresses its mate with vivid displays. Slowly walking along a featureless seabed, he can instantaneously change appearance.
"Once they got used to our presence, they would assume their brighter colours, flashing an ever-changing display of white, purple, yellow and black," says episode producer Ed Charles, who filmed the critters in Indonesia, "especially when meeting a female (four times bigger) to woo her." Lembeh Strait has some of the best muck diving sites, where the showy cuttlefish are frequently found near the silty seabed.
Lizard Island, Australia
Oceans can plummet to unfathomable depths, but action also takes place in the shallows. Offshore from Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, black-tip sharks and trevally form a formidable predatory powerhouse as they join forces to hunt shoals of hardyheads.
"The sharks would surge on to the beach, so they could snatch a mouthful off the sand," Ed Charles explains. "Any hardyheads that managed to get away would panic and flee into deeper water, where the trevally were waiting for them."
It's proof, as Attenborough notes, that "You don't need to be a great underwater swimmer to see the miracle of a flourishing coral reef". He highlights the aquatic forests as a place he would love to visit "over and over again" - but laments they will likely be the first casualties of global warming.
Gobi Desert, Mongolia
Attenborough has traversed most of the globe, but one destination remains on his wish list: the Gobi Desert. "I'm not likely to be sent there, because there aren't many animals, but there are fossils and I would love to go," he muses. The crew managed to locate several of the world's last 1000 wild Bactrian camels, which find water by eating snow drifting from Siberia.
"We'd drive for days without seeing another living thing," says episode producer Ed Charles. "It was a very odd sensation to be in an environment where there is literally no sound other than the whisper of the wind; no birds, not even the hum of an insect. I've never been anywhere that felt more like the surface of another planet."
Christmas Island, Australia
Every November, monsoon rains spur 43 million red crabs to make an epic migration from highland forests to the coast of Christmas Island, eventually spawning in the Indian Ocean on the highest tide. Pinpointing the right night and the best beach was tricky for camera operator Sophie Darlington.
"Trying not to step on them was another huge challenge," she recalls. "It's not a good idea to crush your main talent. We got very good at raking the ground to clear it of crabs."
Beyond the spectacle of red waves flooding the land, the determination of these crustaceans is impressive. "Nothing is going to stop this inch-high festival happening at the beach. I adored their wiggle and dance by the water," Darlington says, laughing.
Lake Natron, Tanzania
The architects of our planet, volcanoes have crafted 80 per cent of the Earth's surface, emitting carbon dioxide to create a balanced, breathable atmosphere and carving a unique home for 20 per cent of all species. One of those creatures is the lesser flamingo; up to two million nest on Lake Natron in the shadow of one of Africa's most active volcanoes, Ol Doinyo Lengai. Braving boiling mud pools and soda flats as caustic as household bleach, the film crew used a hovercraft, hides and drones to capture chicks racing to safety on the lake's edge, with marauding marabou storks in pursuit.
"It's one of the most extraordinary sequences," says Attenborough. Witnessing the pink-hued birds swirling above a rainbow of chemical colours is impressive; an activity offered by private safari guide Alex Hunter.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Venting fire, pressure and anger from the Earth's core, volcanoes can be furiously destructive - but they have the power to generate life, too. On Fernandina, the youngest island in the Galapagos chain, 2000 land iguanas make a 10-day trek to the top of La Cumbre, incubating their eggs in the ash of the crater floor.
"One of the biggest challenges when filming in the Galapagos is the remoteness," says series producer Huw Cordey, who also travelled to Wolf Island to film vampire finches feeding on the blood of Nazca boobies.
The Sahara, Morocco
A ball of fire so powerful it can generate more energy in an hour than humanity consumes in a year, the sun fuels growth and crafts seasons - but it can also incinerate life. In Morocco's Western Sahara desert, only hardy creatures can withstand the intense heat, adapting to a fiercely beautiful environment of shifting shadows and dunes.
One surprisingly toughened survivalist is the silver ant, whose glasslike hairs reflect light, allowing them to zip across 70C sands at 855mm per second. "They are like astronauts in silver space suits here on earth," says episode producer Nick Jordan. "I walked with one ant travelling at an incredible pace, following it back to its near-invisible hole. Witnessing this navigational feat was truly incredible."
The Canadian Arctic
Rotating on a tilted axis, our polar regions are plunged into extremes of light and dark, creating habitats inhospitable to humans. Although chilling to the core, the beauty of these untouched spaces is heart-warming.
"Having worked with wolves around the Northern Hemisphere and experiencing them as a skittish and elusive species, it was fascinating to see how they behave if nobody has hunted them," says cameraman Rolf Steinmann, who claims to have unofficially broken the world record for the coldest drone flight in history on Canada's Ellesmere Island, 800km from the North Pole. More accessible - but still remote - Ennadai Lake also has excellent Arctic wolf sightings.
- Telegraph Media Group