Antarctic Peninsular

So you want to be a wildlife filmmaker? These are the stories of the people who made ‘Dynasties.’

A change of pace doesn’t always mean faster. Dynasties’ five hour-long life stories of five individual animals have now aired in the US, following their BBC One debut late last year, and it was evident from the start — each hour-long episode was filmed in a single location over a two- to four-year period — would have a different rhythm and pace than traditional nature programs.

Dynasties was always going to be different from earlier David Attenborough spectacles like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. By focusing on a single family group of animals over an extended period of time, Dynasties would bend and twist to the rhythms of life, and pack a real emotional punch. Survival of the fittest is never more urgent than when it affects individual animals viewers have grown to know and care about, even if only for a moment. There were times when Dynasties was both profound and poignant, and hard to watch. Life in the wild is a struggle, and there are never any guarantees that the noble — whether lion or penguin — will win out of the ignoble in the end.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

(New editions of Planet Earth and Blue Planet are on the drawing board, by the way, following the next in the BBC-Attenborough canon, One Planet: Seven Worlds. Film composer Hans Zimmer confirmed earlier this week that he’ll be composing the theme for One Planet, as he did for Planet Earth II; no word yet if Radiohead will follow, as they did on Blue Planet II).

If any of Dynasties was hard to watch for the viewer, imagine what it must’ve been like for the cameramen — and women — sound technicians, location managers and field producers who followed each family group for months and years at a time, for the sense of achievement, if not the pay exactly.

Their stories, and the rollercoaster of emotions that rocketed them from highs to lows with an almost capricious regularity, form the core of The Making of Dynasties, which will air this weekend exclusively on BBC America (Sat., 9E/8C).

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the original program itself, The Making of Dynasties’ doesn’t dwell on the obvious — the bugs, the heat or, in the case of Antarctica, the cold — but rather the emotional, inner story of what it’s like to, say,  witness an African wild dog grow from infancy to become a strapping, adolescent would-be hunter and clan leader, only to stand by helplessly while it’s snatched, screaming, by a gargantuan, Antediluvian crocodile after pausing at a riverbank to drink.

It’s hard not to admire the physical and mental toughness of these filmmakers as they spend long days and nights outdoors in places that haven’t changed in millions of years in some cases — there’s no room service on the ice sheets of the Antarctic Peninsular, or in Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, for that matter.

There’s Will Lawson, field producer of the Antarctic episode about penguins, rocked to his core at the sheer power and rugged beauty of the Earth’s most remote region, admitting softly to the camera, “I am absolutely speechless,” and 10,000 kilometre away, in Senegal on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Rosie Thomas, producer-director of the episode about chimpanzees, struggling with her emotions as she admits. “It’s heartbreaking to see this chimp that was so powerful has just become so weak.”

Many nature programs, even those that claim to take themselves seriously, make the mistake of anthropomorphizing their subjects — deliberately giving animals human characteristics — in the belief that will make the program an easier sell with viewers.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As this hour of Dynasties shows, for the filmmakers themselves, these animals proved relatable in their own right, on their own terms. It’s easy to relate to any living creature when their very lives are at stake. There’s no need to Disney-fy the story. When the aging leader of a chimpanzee clan vanishes for several days after being badly injured in a fight with a younger, would-be alpha male, cameraman John Brown is shaken to his core.“We saw him not only nearly lose his position in the hierarchy but we saw him nearly lose his life,” he says to the camera. “The injuries he sustained in the last coup would have been enough to kill me. . . . 

“We’re still looking.”

The confessional to the camera, a type of aside used as a stylistic, storytelling device, is a tried and true staple of reality TV. Watching Dynasties, though — not just The Making of Dynasties — but the entire series, is a reminder of how much more trenchant and relevant documentary is than reality-TV. Here, the personal confessionals really mean something.

Seeing these cameramen and women in isolation, sharing their innermost thoughts, creates a sense of intimacy, emotions close to the surface for all to see. The Making of Dynasties provides depth and added  perspective to what was already a rich and deeply textured series.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“It’s tough, actually,” Nick Lyon, director of the African painted wolves episode, admits. “Because you spend day in and day out with these animals, for months and months and months, and their lives become very important to you. The stories can be incredible but it’s actually an emotional rollercoaster to see what’s happening with them.”

There are many moments in The Making of Dynasties that will surprise even those viewers who hung onto every word of every episode. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most dramatic revelations of life behind the scenes emerge in the Antarctica episode, where three intrepid filmmakers, Lawson and camera operators Stefan Christmann and Lindsay McCrae,  spent an entire Antarctic winter — in months of round-the-clock outdoor darkness — hunkered down inside an isolated German research station, Neumayer Station III, with just half a dozen German researchers to keep them company. A violent polar storm descends on them, on a scale witnessed by few human beings. Antarctic storms are more violent and powerful than any hurricane. There were times, Lawson admitted, when the sheer noise and violent stresses against a German-made structure designed to withstand just about anything, made him think the entire research station was about to come apart at the seams, taking them with it.

“We were told the likelihood of us being evacuated [in the event of an emergency] was less than 10 percent,” Lawson told the BBC’s RadioTimes. “So, yes, that massive level of isolation was very apparent.”

The best nature programs give voice to endangered animals that can’t speak for themselves. As The Making of Dynasties shows, the conservationists and filmmakers  behind the camera have some interesting stories of their own. The Making of Dynasties ends, not with the Northern Lights but the Southern Lights, as seen from Antarctica.

“That is absolutely amazing,” Will Lawson says, nearly overcome by emotion in the black pitch of the Antarctic night, as clouds of green and amber light play overhead. “Oh my God.”

And how.

Weddell Sea Expedition 2019: All begins well that (sort of) ended well.

As you saw in my last post, the 2019 expedition —months in the planning — has made landfall, if you will, on its way to one of the harshest regions in Antarctica. Their official mission is to gather vital data on the rare and little-studied species of marine life which call the icy western Weddell Sea home, and to monitor the effects of rapidly accelerating climate change.

The unofficial mission is to find the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance,  which could only endure so much before it was crushed by pack ice and abandoned at 5 p.m. local time on Oct. 27, 1915 — this, after Shackleton and his crew of 27 had survived nine months trapped in the Antarctic ice, four of those months in winter darkness.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

On this past New Year’s Day, while countless partygoers around the world nursed a hangover from the night before, the roughly 30 scientists and 138 crew members aboard the expedition ship SA Agulhas II played an impromptu game of soccer on the Antarctic ice — 104 years to the day after Shackleton and his crew played a New Year’s Day soccer game of their own, even if they called it football. (That event was photographed for posterity by Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley — who, it’s often noted, deserves much more credit than he’s received over the years for making a record of Shackleton’s exploits for future generations.)

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

The Weddell Sea expedition is enthralling stuff, especially as it comes in cynical, jaded times, when global anxiety and an all-pervading sense of gloom rule the day. Social media gets a bad rap — it probably wouldn’t be as bad if only users learned how to use it, but that’s an argument for another day — but the age of instant communications has its upside: Not only are events from the Weddell Sea expedition being shared around the world in real time via Twitter (@WeddellSeaExped) but the UK Royal Geographical Society, one of the expedition’s primary sponsors, has made teaching resources available for educators, presumably for those public schools that haven’t trashed their history and geography programs.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Why do we care about Ernest Shackleton more than 100 years later? Perhaps it has something to do with courage. And competence. After all, in an age when little of social or political consequence ever seems to get done — when more people are concerned about who got voted off The Voice last night than finding a way to fix Brexit, the polar ice melt, species extinction and our growing climate emergency — the idea that, with cool heads and strong leadership, more than 20 human beings can survive nine months trapped in polar ice and then navigate their way to safety in lifeboats across 1,300 km (800 miles) of open water — in Antarctica, no less.

And then there’s the place itself. Even as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft discovery of the most distant object ever explored at the edge of the solar system continues to make news headlines, Antarctica remains the last great unknown in the annals of contemporary exploration of the world’s land masses. Much like the snowman-shaped, 33-km (21 mile) long asteroid 2014 MU69 orbiting the edge of the solar system, well beyond Pluto, much of Antarctica remains unchanged since the beginning of recorded time, in no small part because of the desolate conditions.

“There’s no way to make anything like this . . .  type of observation without having a spacecraft out there,” New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin told reporters in a press conference just days ago.

The same could be said of SA Agulhas II and the Weddell Sea Expedition. It’s hard to beat being there.

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From ‘Terror’ to ‘Endurance,’ a New Year’s Day expedition for the ages.

On this New Year’s Day, fresh off sea trials, the SA Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research ships in the world, will quietly weigh anchor and set sail for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

As with oceanographer Robert Ballard’s historic search for the Titanic, the mission is two-fold. There’s a main mission — science and research into the real-world effects of our growing climate emergency — and a less publicized but no less worthy mission, to find the remains of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance

It was thought unlikely, if not  impossible, for example, that anyone would find Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror, which was abandoned to heavy sea ice in the high Arctic — together with Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus —  in Britain’s disastrous the mid-19th century expedition to find a way through Canada’s Northwest Passage.

SA Agulhas II/handout

SA Agulhas II/handout

All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, making it the worst disaster to strike Britain’s Royal Navy during its long history of polar exploration.

And yet, little more than two years ago, a diving team on the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship Martin Bergmann found the Terror in virtually pristine condition, its three masts broken but still standing, at the bottom of the aptly named — and previously uncharted — Terror Bay, just south of Victoria Strait, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

Nearly a century later, the Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found himself mired in similar circumstances on the other side of the world — literally — when his ship Endurance became  trapped in sea ice during an attempt to make the frist land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Endurance was slowly crushed in the thickening ice; the crew escaped certain death by camping on the sea ice until it, too, disintegrated.

Unlike Franklin, however, Shackleton managed to lead much of his crew to safety and eventual rescue, by sailing 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the Antarctic to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic in a seven-metre (23 feet) lifeboat, in one of the great tales of survival in maritime history.



Fast-forward to Jan. 1, 2019, and the SA Agulhas II is about to set sail on a 45-day scientific expedition deep into those areas of the Weddell Sea that are still covered in ice, despite it being the height of the Antarctic summer.

The Agulhas crew will study the effects of climate change and global warming. 

In July, 2017, a giant iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg  — or four times the size of Greater London, if you prefer — calved off the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsular, the northernmost arm of Antarctica and a hotspot for research because its retreating glaciers are a significant contributor to the global rise in sea levels.

The expedition includes more than 30 international scientists in numerous different fields. The 13,500-tonne, 135-metre (450 feet) icebreaker  Agulhas is equipped with drones, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for collecting data well below the sea’s surface.

National Maritime Museum/archives  - Photo by Frank Hurley

National Maritime Museum/archives - Photo by Frank Hurley

The Endurance is there, just waiting to be found, as the 2016 discovery of Terror proved.

The bigger picture though, appropriate to the increasingly heated conversation about climate change due in the coming year, is all this melting ice — in both polar regions — and what it means to the planet’s future, in both the medium and long term.

As Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at Imperial College London told The Guardian just days after the iceberg A68 calved off the Larsen C ice shelf in July, 2017, “There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 metres.”

Of course, as the Shackleton expedition proved — not to mention the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott “Scott of the Antarctic” expedition just three years earlier, Antarctica has a way of dashing the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“Antarctica is a place of extremes,” John Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute and the Weddell Sea expedition’s chief scientist, told Guardian science editor Ian Sample just days ago.

“But if we are that close to one of the most iconic vessels in polar exploration, we have got to go and look for it.”