David Attenborough Wildlife Specials

by Jake Meaney

29 May 2008

Moments of surprise, moments of awe, moments of the unbelievable. Please, leave the vaults open and keep the goodness coming, BBC.

First, let’s take a moment to praise Sir David Attenborough, the jovial, avuncular pioneer and shepherd of the BBC’s trailblazing nature documentaries, now in his early 80s and still going strong. His trademark hushed and breathlessly excited narration—infectious, enthusiastic and perpetually youthful—is one of the great delights of all of broadcasting, as synonymous with these programs as their stunning photography of the animal kingdom.

To hear him wax rhapsodic about the majesty of the humpback whale, or the plumage of eagles, or the sex lives of crocodiles, is to hear, perhaps, the voice of Nature itself, bidding us to heed its call, to pay closer attention, and to stop taking it for granted. David Attenborough is not merely a national treasure for the UK, but a global treasure, a hero to us all, a hero to planet Earth.

cover art

David Attenborough Wildlife Specials

US DVD: 1 Apr 2008

So, with that bit of embarrassing idolatry out of the way, to the matter in hand. Here we have a newly released DVD set collecting the first six episodes of a sporadically produced series of wildlife specials from the mid 1990s. Each program focuses on a fairly commonplace, frequently filmed animal, yet reveals new, and often stunning, facts about its lives and habits.

The BBC has a strong history of going above and beyond to film what has never been recorded before. The degree of proximity and intimacy that the photographers are able to achieve and maintain is so stunning and frankly unbelievable that too often you find yourself distracted while watching, wondering just how the hell they shot and captured some of the behavior and action that they did.

But this is the key to what has separated the BBC from other producers of nature documentaries, this tactical brilliance, combined with the deployment of the latest technology—though, to be sure, most what’s used here is quite quaint by today’s standards, especially when compared to, say, their masterpiece, Planet Earth. No matter—most of the shots captured are still amazing and gorgeous, if not downright fantastic.

So then, what do we see? We follow polar bears as they trek across the ice in search of seals; we swim with crocodiles as they maneuver strategically in large packs along a river, the better to take down a crossing herd of zebras; we watch a leopard stalk an imapala in pitch darkness; we fly and somersault through the air with fighting eagles; we swim with a mother humpback whale and calf, as they try to elude aggressive male humpbacks; and we watch as a pack of wolves try to take down a 1,500lb. bison.

The chief focus of each 50-minute program, then, is on predation (except when it focuses on procreation, the other main theme of each show).  Each animal is presented as an exponent of evolutionary perfection in the art of hunting and killing. Yet there is none of the sensationalism or bloodlust one would expect or fear—in fact, the BBC shows are rather chaste and tame, and there is little onscreen gore. Rather, the programs look deeper, to something more fundamental, struck with wonder at the innate intelligence and instincts, reveling in the joy of watching Nature’s perfection at work.

If each episode, then, hews to a similar template—animal hunts, animal mates, animal nurtures young and hunts more to provide – the difference is, of course, in the details. For instance programs showing polar bears padding around on the Arctic ice are fairly commonplace. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a polar bear caught stalking a baby seal (which is concealed beneath the ice in a dugout, mind you, and which the polar bear can only detect by smell), stepping carefully and gingerly, with great deliberation, one foot softly at a time, trying to sneak up on the seal without alarming it. One false move, one unnatural sound, and no supper for the bear.

It’s like watching a master thief trying to navigate a room full of invisible lasers and hidden booby traps. Just fascinating, hypnotic stuff. Who knew polar bears—so mammoth and lumbering—possessed so much stealth and, even, grace?

Or how about this: in Greece, there’s a certain breed of forest dwelling golden eagle (the most widely distributed breed of eagle in the world) that feeds primarily on tortoises. How do they get the tortoises out of their shells? Why, the eagle swoops down, grabs the shell by the talons, speeds straight up in the air, looks for an outcrop of rocks, and then hurls the tortoise down onto the rocks, splitting the shell. A fairly obvious strategy—but to actually see the whole thing in action, beginning to end—it’s simply awe inspiring.

There are countless other little examples like this scattered all throughout, moments of surprise, moments of awe, moments of the unbelievable. Take, for example, the way a pack of three or four wolves take on an entire herd of bison.  They single out one to relentlessly harass and pursue, patiently wear it down physically and psychologically, to the point where the wolves can then take down a beast ten times their body weight (each, not combined).

Or the way humpback whales herd fish through sound, wrapping them up aurally into tight bundles, the easier to swallow them down in one enormous bite. Or the way crocodiles act in harmonious cooperation when feeding, two crocs holding a recently killed wildebeest down, while a feeding croc bites and then corkscrews around and around to rend off flesh. Who knew that crocs—so fearsome and vicious—were so social and team oriented? 

So I hope that this release is just the first of several rounding up this loose series of BBC Wildlife Specials, because from the list, there are some great, magestic animals waiting in the wings, including the elephant (and really, who can ever get enough of elephants?), the grizzly bear, the gorilla, and a two part special on the hapless wildebeest, who finally gets the singular attention it deserves, after years of being featured in other animal specials as little more than easy vittles.

And just as an aside, is there another animal on earth that serves as prey to more animals than the wildebeest? Any special I’ve ever seen on Africa, the wildebeest is always being dragged down and lunched on, by a wide variety of predators—crocs, tigers, lions—I’m sure prairie dogs would hunt wildebeest if they lived in Africa. It’s kind of sad and tragic and darkly humorous all at once. The wildebeest—nature’s greatest punching bag, nature’s great all you can eat lunch buffet. A moment of silence for them, please.

Accompanying the six episodes of the Wildlife Specials are two excellent hour length one-off features, also produced by the BBC, also hosted and narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Great Natural Wonders of the World is a global tour of some of nature’s most breathtaking sights. Starting in the desert of the American West, the program bounds from continent to continent, hitting spots both famous (the Great Barrier Reef, the Himalayas) and more obscure (the Ngorongoro Crater in Africa, Angel Falls in Venezuela). The stops are obviously brief, and some continents get the short shrift (Asia, the Indian sub-continent), but it’s an enjoyable whirlwind tour.

Great Natural Wonders of the World focuses on mass gatherings of animals, coming together in vast hordes for migration, mating or feeding.  Breaking down a year into monthly segments, each of the 12 parts focuses on a different grouping of animals, starting with a huge massing of monarch butterflies in Mexico, and ending the year coral spawning in the Great Barrier Reef. In between we see penguins huddled in the perpetual snowstorm night of Antarctica, millions of flamingoes gathered at a soda lake in Africa, and of course, the mass migration of wildebeests across the African plains, the largest land migration on the planet (at least they get points for something other than being very tasty!).

Again, everything is brief and hectic, but it’s a great program, nonetheless. Even the BBC’s tossed off nature programs bear a high standard of brilliance.  Please, leave the vaults open and keep the goodness coming, BBC.

David Attenborough Wildlife Specials


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