Nature’s Great Events

The world is an incredible place, but it would be considerably worse without Sir David Attenborough and his wonderful documentaries to remind us of the fact.

Last night’s episode of Nature’s Great Events (BBC1) was another spectacular epic, following a pride of lions as they struggle to survive in the Serengeti Plains when the wildebeest and zebra move off on their annual migration.

The herds, we are told, follow the rains and the prospects for fresh pasture, leaving the lions without their usual source of sustenance.

The effect of this on the younger members of the pride is catastrophic, and I challenge you to keep a dry eye at the sight of an emaciated, dying cub wailing for its mother.

It is a moving, occasionally harrowing story. There is a happy ending (or as much of one as is to be found in nature) as most of the pride survive to see the return of the herds, and a wonderful image of one of the lionesses indulging in a celebratory roll in the grass watched by a confused zebra.

We witness the circle of life in its all its beauty and cruelty, but The Lion King is certainly is not.

The series is gloriously filmed, and the 10 minute ‘diary’ added to the end of each programme, charting the experiences of the filmmakers, is very welcome, and just short enough to stay interesting.

There are still 3 more episodes to come, all of which will be fantastic. Why the conviction? Come on, this is Sir David we’re taking about.


Nature’s Great Events TV firsts include:

Aerial footage of the amazing migration of the mysterious Arctic narwhal whale, with its unicorn-like tusk

High definition footage of polar bears feeding on seals, struggling to survive as they hunt in broken ice and fall through

The sardine run filmed with three crews in full high definition – underwater, aerial and on the surface

Pioneering the boat stabilising mount to film the sardine run – previously only used in Hollywood feature films

A shoal of sardines 15 miles long surrounded by thousands of sharks; 10,000 gannets raining down on a shoal of fish and a super-pod of 5,000 common dolphins – all filmed using the high definition helicopter mount

Cape fur seals coming ashore to snatch gannet chicks from their colony

The eruption of the Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano in the Serengeti – the first eruption since 1964 – filmed in HD from the ground and the air

Revealing the epic scale of the wildebeest migration from the air

Grizzly bear families emerging from their dens, in snowy Alaska, filmed with gyro-stabilised cameras mounted on helicopters

A pack of wolves attacking an adult grizzly bear in North America

High speed cameras film grizzly bears chasing down salmon in shallow water, showing their power and grace

Underwater footage of bears catching salmon using their feet – filmed by producer Jeff Turner, who swam among them

High speed cameras filming up to 2,000 frames per second reveal how salmon leap over three metres through the air to clear waterfalls

Film of the Okavango Delta flood at every level – from macro to aerial photography

A young elephant attacked and killed by a pride of lions in broad daylight

Elephants using their trunks to siphon water from the top of dirty pools

Underwater crew capture humpback whales engulfing a whole herring bait ball in one giant gulp

A pod of killer whales attacking and killing a huge male sea lion

Bubble netting by humpback whales filmed from the air and on the surface, together with incredible sound to illustrate the co-operative fishing behaviour of these few select whales.

In the north-east Pacific, along the coastal waters of Alaska and British Columbia, the arrival of the summer sun triggers an explosion of plant life greater in scale than even the Amazon rainforest.

The feast draws in huge amounts of wildlife – including billions of herring; Steller’s sea lions, who race against time to make the most of the abundant fish before the harsh winter closes in; and humpback whales that migrate all the way from Hawaii.

Remarkably, the basis of all this life is something so small that it’s hardly visible to the naked eye. The sun sparks the growth of this phytoplankton – the microscopic floating plants that are the basis of all life here.

And both whales and sea lions have to overcome many obstacles before they can take advantage of the feast.

The humpback whales face a voyage of three months from Hawaii and the loss of a third of their bodyweight before they can feed again.

And, despite being the largest in the world, the Steller’s sea lions are threatened by predators and ferocious seas. The mothers are land-bound as they have their pups and so cannot feed.

Nature’s Great Events films a heart-rending scene where a mother loses her pup in a violent summer storm.

A struggle for life between a killer whale and a one tonne sea lion male is also filmed for the first time above and below water.

As well as the summer sun, the other key element that underpins the massive plankton bloom is the coastal landscape.

The complex coastline of islands, inlets and channels interrupts ocean currents and so brings nutrients to the surface, fuelling the plankton bloom.

In late summer the bloom is at its height and vast shoals of herring gather to feed.

Murres, small diving birds, round up a ball of herring and dart in to pick off fish. The underwater images show these graceful birds “flying” around the bait balls.

And, after a 6,000 mile round trip to Hawaii, the whales have returned and remarkable underwater footage reveals how one whale scoops up the entire ball of herring in one huge mouthful.

When a dozen whales converge, they employ the ultimate co-operative way to harvest the riches of the seas – through bubble net feeding.

One whale blows a ring of bubbles to engulf the shoal of herring and then they charge in.

Filmed from the surface, underwater and the air, Nature’s Great Events reveals how these giant hunters can catch a tonne of fish every day.

The producer is Hugh Pearson.

Nature’s Great Events Diary – Two Men And A Hungry Whale

Filming The Great Feast underwater was the most difficult challenge for the team, but it was to provide some revealing new behaviour.

The strong currents and thick plankton bloom that make Alaskan and British Columbian waters so rich made the task of filming the herring bait balls a tough challenge.

The team had to dive in waters that experience some of the strongest currents in the world, as well as tackle an unusual safety issue – the possibility of being swallowed by a humpback whale!

Shane Moore and David Reichert were trying to film the herring bait balls – but they weren’t the only ones showing an interest in these gatherings of fish.

The crew decided to turn their attentions to filming sea lions. The cheeky sea lions were a little too friendly, playing to the camera and nipping the divers.

But the crew needed to get more shots of the bait balls so, as the next strong tides brought up more fish, they tried once more.

As well as getting some stunning footage of the diving birds feeding on the herring, the unexpected actually happened: a 30 tonne whale roared through within feet of David and Shane, engulfing the entire bait ball.

Fortunately, the cameramen were unharmed and captured amazing and unique shots as well as an unforgettable experience.

At the peak of the dry season in the Kalahari Desert herds of elephants trek towards a life-saving event.

These resourceful elephants reveal remarkable new behaviour as they try to make the most of the stagnant pools, arid woodlands and waterholes guarded by lion prides.

However, their fortunes change dramatically with the annual flooding of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, which turns 4,000 square miles of desert into a maze of lagoons, islands and swamps.

As millions of animals are drawn to this wetland, including great herds of famished elephants and buffalo, the scene is set for some of the greatest clashes in nature.

Using a range of high definition filming techniques over two years, Nature’s Great Events follows their fortunes.

A herd of the elephants look to be on a suicide mission as they head from the woodlands of northern Botswana to the parched sands of the delta – a place that appears to hold little food and water.

Incredibly, the experienced matriarchs time their arrival at the delta to coincide with the great flood, when water and lush grasses are abundant.

Nature’s Great Events follows these resourceful elephants on their journey, revealing new and remarkable behaviour.

They film the way they use their trunks to siphon clean water from the surface layers of a stagnant pool, while avoiding stirring up the muddy sediment on the bottom with their feet.

Bull hippos also converge on prime territories formed by the rising flood water. They assert their dominance and gain mating rights with the females.

The explosive force of these two-tonne giants is captured on film as two big bulls do bloody battle – at times being lifted out of the water by their rival.

Lechwe swamp deer, zebra, giraffe, crocodiles and numerous fish invade the wetlands.

Countless thousands of birds also arrive in the delta, to enjoy the seasonal bounty during this time of abundance.

And, in a phenomenon never before filmed in the Okavango, thousands of dragonflies appear – seemingly from nowhere – within minutes of the flood arrival, mating and laying eggs.

As the flood finally reaches its peak, elephants and buffalo, near the end of their epic trek across the desert, face the final gauntlet of a hungry pride of lions.

The producer is Peter Bassett.

Nature’s Great Events Diary – Mission Impassable

Filming in the Okavango requires a special type of film-maker, and few have more experience of working there than cameraman Mike Holding.

But when he was tasked with filming the front of the advancing flood, the team very quickly realised that this would be no mean feat.

Even finding a suitable area to film in a wilderness the size of Wales required Mike to take to the skies, using his plane to get a bird’s eye view of the delta.

Once in the air, he could quickly locate a patch of sand that would soon be inundated by the flood.

Laying a GPS trail for the ground crew to follow with all the filming equipment, it took Mike just 20 minutes to fly the 25 miles back to camp – but it would take the crew three days to cover the same distance on the ground.

It would now be a race against time for the crew to get to the filming area before the flood. As the Okavango Delta is one of the most challenging places in the world to take a vehicle, they had to use specially-designed swamp trucks that can travel in up to seven feet of water.

Travelling in two vehicles meant that, when one got stuck, the other could come to the rescue. Mechanical failures and punctures were also an every day event.

The crew had to rely on their heavily improvised “bush mechanic” skills to get the trucks back on track and often changed tyres in four feet of water. Eventually, the team managed to get themselves and all their equipment into position to film the flood.

By arriving in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, the crew were able to use newly-designed high definition camera systems (such as a jib arm mounted onto the back of a filming vehicle and a fully motion-controlled macro-camera rig) to film remarkable new perspectives of the arriving flood.

Their struggle was worth it when, within minutes of the flood arrival, thousands of dragonflies appeared and began mating and laying eggs just centimetres away from the front of the advancing water.

As winter arrives along South Africa’s east coast the inshore waters cool, drawing hundreds of millions of sardines northwards.

The sardine run is the world’s largest marine spectacle, attracting the planet’s greatest concentration of predators – an awe inspiring array of ocean hunters.

Super-pods of common dolphins up to 5,000 strong, thousands of sharks and huge Brydes whales feast on the sardines, as gannets rain down from above.

However, in recent years, the sardine run has become less than predictable.

It could be because of the effects of climate change warming the ocean. If the sardine run doesn’t happen the lives of animals caught up in the drama hang in the balance.

Pioneering a unique boat stabilised camera mount, the Nature’s Great Events crew were able to capture incredible new animal behaviours from the surface, as well as stunning footage of all the action from the air and underwater in HD.

But it required considerable persistence because of the unpredictability of the sardine run.

The story begins in the South African summer, a time when common dolphins and the gannets on the biggest gannet colony in the world – Bird Island – are raising their young.

The dolphins endlessly scour the ocean for fish, while unique footage captures the gannets’ dramatic struggle for life as chicks are snatched by Cape fur seals racing on to the land.

A violent winter storm is the trigger for the sardines to begin their desperate dash. They are followed by a super-pod of 5,000 dolphins and further up the coast more predators gather.

A shoal of sardines 15 miles long is pushed into the shallows and thousands of sharks start to encircle them.

The climax to the sardine run is a spectacular feeding frenzy as the dolphins round the sardines up into balls on which all the predators feast.

Filming in super-slow motion captures every detail as gannets plunge into the water, hitting it at speeds of 60 miles an hour.

Aerial, underwater and surface cameras film the high octane action as the dolphins, sharks and Brydes whales’ compete for the abundant prey.

The producer is Hugh Pearson.

Nature’s Great Events Diary – Life On The Run

Didier Noirot, one of the most experienced underwater cameramen in the world, who worked with Jacques Cousteau for more than a decade, took on the task of filming the bait balls that characterise the sardine run.

The bait balls are incredibly short-lived and hard to find so it turned into a two-year mission for the Frenchman.

As well as the frustrations of no action and poor water visibility, Didier had to hold his nerve in the shark-infested waters.

First, they nipped his fins as he tried some novel in-water sound recording, then the sharks were strangely wary of Didier when he dropped in to film among thousands that were circling the sardine slick.

Undeterred by the sharks, he continued on the trail of the elusive bait ball. And it wasn’t until the last week of filming in the second year that he found himself in the perfect position – among a feeding frenzy in ideal filming conditions.

Astonishing footage of Didier in the heart of the action gives a real sense of scale and context, but being that close can be risky.

A 16-foot shark took a lunge at his leg but he was able to fend it off before it took a bite.

“The sharks were too aggressive… we got bumped a few times… and that was a bit serious,” he admits.

But he held his nerve to capture unique footage on the penultimate day of the filming.

Each year more than one million wildebeest and a quarter of a million zebra and gazelle migrate on Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains – one of the most spectacular events in the natural world.

Nature’s Great Events tells the story of the epic trek of herds that follow the rains to fresh pastures and the tale of the predators they leave behind.

The crew captures the desperate plight of a single pride of lions over an unprecedented year of filming to reveal a different side to the Serengeti.

Rather than being a predators’ paradise – as it is so often portrayed – it’s a land in constant change, with wildebeest following the rains and leaving the lions to tough it out.

When filming starts, the pride has seven cubs and is already suffering as the wildebeest leave their territory to find fresh pastures. Unable to follow, the four pride females struggle to find enough food for their hungry offspring.

To add to their struggle, a fire rages through the lions’ territory destroying the cover they so desperately need in order to ambush the few prey animals that remain.

As weeks turn to months, the pride members become more emaciated and frailer, and the number of cubs dwindles to just two.

But for Serengeti’s cheetahs, who use speed rather than ambush to catch their prey, the fire has created a perfect environment.

As the herds begin to return, the plains reveal one final secret. For the first time since 1967 the Serengeti’s only active volcano – Ol Doinyo Lengai – begins to billow ash and smoke.

Using a gyro-stabilised helicopter mount, the team captures the action as lions and wildebeest are caught up in windblown dust and ash.

However, this event also reveals why the herds return each year in order to give birth. Fertilised by the volcanic ash over thousands of years, these short grass plains are among the most productive grasslands in the world.

After months of hardship the pride’s tragic story was over as the herds returned providing plentiful food.

The producer is Peter Bassett.

Nature’s Great Events Diary – Pride and Peril

When wildlife film-maker Owen Newman began following the Ndutu pride for Nature’s Great Events he could not predict the harrowing tale he would be telling.

Despite his 20 years of experience filming big cats in Africa, the appalling condition of the cubs, battling to survive in a particularly harsh dry season, began to affect him more and more deeply.

Two of the youngest cubs had become separated from the pride. Hungry and alone, they lay all day calling for the adults who were too far away to hear.

The youngsters were so malnourished their hip bones jutted out, as well as their ribs; and their fur was falling out. They were painfully thin but their eyes were bright with the will to live.

It seemed almost disrespectful to capture such a scene on camera, so Owen finished filming as soon as he could and left them alone.

The following day he returned to where he had left them and was unable to find them or the rest of the Ndutu pride. He assumed the cubs had died and continued to search for the pride.

With no luck, he returned to the UK to wait until the beginning of the wet season before resuming the quest.

Once again, despite searching high and low, he was still unable to find the pride and assumed that none were left alive.

But finally, after weeks of searching, a local spotter reported a sighting and Owen raced to the scene.

Miraculously, it was the Ndutu pride with two healthy and well-fed cubs – one of which was the cub he thought he had filmed dying.

The return of the Pacific salmon every year to the rivers from which they were born is one of the greatest natural events on the planet. More than half a billion salmon travel up to 20,000 miles to return to the exact patch of gravel in the river from which they were born, to spawn and die.

Nature’s Great Events travel to the west coast of Canada and Alaska to capture the salmons’ return, along with the predators who eagerly await their plentiful prey.

In a TV first, Nature’s Great Events film the emergence of a mother grizzly and her cubs from their dens high in the snowy Alaskan mountains. Using a gyro-stabilised aerial camera system, they are able to follow them down a near vertical slope as they make their way to the coast where the fresh new plant life first appears in the spring.

While waiting for the salmon, which are 2,000 miles away, the bears survive by eating clams, barnacles and even grass!

But they face competition from the coastal wolves, which have been known to kill and eat small bears. The team films a dramatic confrontation between hungry wolves and a lone bear. Although effective predators, the wolves find they have met their match.

Using high speed cameras and specially designed digital underwater kit, the crew are able to record how the salmon swim upstream against powerful torrents.

Filming at 100 times normal speed, they reveal how the salmon are able to leap over waterfalls equivalent to a human jumping over a four storey building.

But despite their monumental struggles, the salmon face a greater challenge up river – dozens of hungry bears. Slow motion shots of the bears reveal their hunting techniques, while the underwater cameras record another TV first to show how they use their ingenuity and some fancy footwork to collect dead salmon from the bottom of deep pools.

After spawning the salmon die, and yet their decaying bodies continue to feed the animals gathered along the rivers, as well as providing nutrients to feed the developing salmon eggs in the river.

Time lapse cameras demonstrate that the dead fish also sustain the forest itself. They release stored nutrients – collected during their life in the sea – to feed the great temperate rainforest of coastal Canada.

The producer is Jeff Turner.

Nature’s Great Events Diary – Close Encounters Of A Grizzly Kind

Wildlife cameraman Jeff Turner has spent much of the past 20 years filming grizzly bears in the wilds of Canada and Alaska.

For Nature’s Great Events he wanted to observe and film how bears caught salmon underwater in a way that had never been done before.

Before filming began Jeff had a new digital cinema camera adapted to fit inside a specially-built underwater housing. This camera recorded very high quality images directly onto a computer laptop by sending the data down a fibre-optic cable. This would allow Jeff to place the camera in the midst of the fishing bears without disturbing them.

But things never go to plan. The cable proved too irresistible to the bears. One mischievous youngster took a big bite out of it and nearly ended that year’s filming!

However, the salmon were not in the shallow water where Jeff had expected them to be. He had to follow the bears to the deep pools where all the fish seemed to be hiding out. He could see the bears were trying to get salmon here but he wasn’t sure how they could get them in such deep water – as they just don’t like getting their ears wet!

Using the remote underwater camera here continued to be a problem. Because the water was so deep the bears couldn’t reach the bottom so some of them took to standing on the camera and knocking it over.

After repeated attempts to keep the camera upright, Jeff needed to try a different approach. He decided to stay in the pool with the fishing bears and follow them around hand-holding the camera on a pole.

In this way he was able to film them collecting dead salmon from the bottom of the pool by using their feet to kick up the dead salmon. The way the bears did this had never been filmed before and provided one of the most memorable sequences in The Great Salmon Run.

In the end it wasn’t so much new technology that revealed this interesting behaviour, but Jeff’s years of experience and understanding of the grizzly bear that allowed him to get up close and personal.

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.

Using state of the art filming technology, Nature’s Great Events on BBC One captures the Earth’s most dramatic and epic wildlife spectacles and the intimate stories of the animals caught up in them.

From the flooding of the Okavango Delta, in Africa, to the great summer melt of ice in the Arctic and the massive annual bloom of plankton in the northern Pacific Ocean, each of the six programmes features a different event set in one of the world’s most iconic wildernesses.

The series is narrated by David Attenborough.

The characters include tiny grizzly bear cubs emerging from their den in snow-covered mountains; baby elephants struggling to survive against drought and lion attack in Africa; humpback whales hunting as a team; the world’s largest concentration of dolphins and sharks gathering off the coast of South Africa; and polar bear families navigating their precarious way on ever-thinning ice.

The world-renowned BBC Natural History Unit uses sophisticated high definition cameras, cutting-edge aerial, underwater and ultra slow-motion filming techniques to capture in intimate detail some of the audience’s best-loved wildlife, as their lives become entwined with these dramatic events.

As the Earth is rapidly changing, we can no longer take these great natural events for granted. By filming the events and their fluctuations this series takes the pulse of the planet.

A BBC/Discovery Channel/Wanda co-production. The series producer is Karen Bass and the executive producer is Brian Leith.

Nature’s Great Events is also being simulcast on the BBC HD channel – the BBC’s High Definition channel available through Freesat, Sky and Virgin Media. With up to five times more detail than standard definition television, HD gives you exceptionally vivid colours and crisp pictures to make Nature’s Great Events a truly cinematic TV experience.

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