Episode One: The Great Melt

In the Arctic summer nearly three million miles of sea ice rapidly begin to melt. For the masters of the ice, the polar bears, the change in habitat threatens their survival but for others – like arctic foxes, beluga whales, the elusive narwhals and immense flocks of birds – this brief summer transforms the Arctic into one of the richest places on Earth.

The Nature’s Great Events team captures the greatest seasonal change on the planet in a year when the Great Melt was the largest ever recorded – the sea ice had never retreated so far or so fast. In the summer of 2007 a staggering 400,000 square miles of extra ice disappeared. At this rate, many scientists predict that the Arctic summer could be ice-free in 20 to 50 years’ time.

As the temperature rises, the cameras follow a mother polar bear and her cub making their first journey on to the sea ice in search of their favourite prey – ringed seals. It’s a serious business for the mother but the cub just wants to play. The melt continues and prey becomes scarce.

In Canada’s Hudson Bay the bears gather, waiting for the sea to re-freeze. In a dramatic sequence two 400kg males square up to each other to spar. Some of the waiting bears have gone without food for the whole melt and are half their normal weight, losing up to a kilo a day.

Groups of Arctic whales – the elusive narwhals – are filmed for the first time using aerial cameras as they head north to feeding grounds. The whales’ journey is risky as they travel along giant cracks in the ice. If the ice were to close above them they could suffocate and drown.

The beluga whales provide one of the most bizarre summer spectacles as hundreds gather in the river shallows to rub themselves on smooth pebbles. This exfoliating action allows them to moult their year-old skin.

Guillemot chicks take their first heart-stopping flights from their precipitous sea cliff nests to the sea – 300 metres below. With the summer so short, they have to return south before the re-freeze. But the chicks’ stubby wings are too underdeveloped to fly. To reach the relative safety of the sea they attempt to glide down, with many missing their target. Their loss is a bonus for the hungry Arctic fox family waiting below.

The producer is Justin Anderson.

Nature’s Great Events Diary – Quest for Ice Whales

The most challenging character The Great Melt team set out to film was the elusive narwhal – the strange tusked whale that helped inspire the legend of the unicorn.

Each year thousands of these mysterious animals migrate to the north, navigating cracks in the melting ice that act as highways to rich feeding grounds. Just finding the whales in a wilderness of ice in an area larger than Scotland was a huge challenge which involved two teams – one aerial and one diving under the ice.

Director Joe Stevens and cameraman Tom Fitz headed the dive team, travelling from the remote camp onto the melting ice every day looking for signs of whales. The sea ice is a patchwork of shallow melt water pools and raised areas of ice which made the snowmobile journey particularly hazardous.

In order to survive beneath the sea ice in water of two degrees, the dive team had to fill their wetsuit gloves with near-boiling water. Attached to a rope to guide them back, the divers discovered an eerie world of icy canyons lit by shafts of sunlight. With the sea ice dangerously thin, it was a race against time for the teams.

A tantalising glimpse of a narwhal tail breaking the water and the sound of its clicks, recorded with a special underwater microphone, came too late for the divers so the aerial team took up the challenge.

Lead by producer Justin Anderson and cameraman Simon Werry, the aerial team in a helicopter used the information gathered by the divers to locate the narwhals.

Suddenly a narwhal surfaced in a giant crack in the ice, its long spiral tusk breaking the water, and more narwhal followed. Armed with a specialist camera mount, Simon zoomed in on the action and was able to film a sight that even experienced polar scientists had never witnessed.

The incredible detail captured on HD camera revealed the whales travelling through the huge cracks in the ice, using their heads and tusks to widen holes, creating more space to breathe.

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