Filmmakers working on the Sir David Attenborough-narrated BBC Earth documentary series Dynasties are being praised by viewers for interrupting filming to rescue some penguins.
The second episode of the series showed the brutal winter that emperor penguins must face in Antarctica. One particular group of emperor penguins in Atka Bay had to face a storm so powerful that they were unable to keep themselves from being blown into a ravine and cut off from the colony. This ravine had walls too steep for the penguins to climb, and had filmmakers not intervened, the penguin mothers and chicks would have surely died. Footage captured the mothers fighting to drag their chicks up the slope, struggling so much that some were forced to make the heartbreaking decision of abandoning their babies.
“I can’t watch,” the BBC Earth Twitter tweeted about the scene Sunday, with a heart-wrenching accompanying clip.
That’s when the filmmakers decided to act, in an unprecedented move.
“They dug a shallow ramp in the hope that at least some of the penguins would use it to save themselves,” added the BBC Earth Twitter.
Nature filmmakers usually follow the rule of never interfering with nature. Nature must run its course, and to interfere with it can set dangerous precedents, or at least that’s the argument behind this notion. However, director Will Lawson, camera operator Lindsay McCrae and assistant Stefan Christmann made an exception here.
“We opted to intervene passively. Once we’d dug that little ramp, which took very little time, we left it to the birds. We were elated when they decided to use it. There’s no rule book in those situations. You can only respond to the facts that are right there in front of you,” says Lawson, per LADbible.
As you can imagine, we only show a fraction of the real trauma and difficulty that the animals go through—it was a very hard thing to see. What was unique with this was that the only other animal there was us—nothing else would directly benefit from this. I’m sure some people will have an opinion in the other direction but in my heart of hearts I think we made the right decision.
Mike Gunton, the series executive producer, also defended the decision. “It’s such an unusual circumstance to do this, and there are lots of situations where you couldn’t, and shouldn’t and wouldn’t—but I think in this situation there were so many factors. There were no animals going to suffer by intervening. It wasn’t dangerous. You weren’t touching the animals and it was just felt by doing this … they had the opportunity to not have to keep slipping down the slope,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
In a press conference earlier this month, Gunton acknowledged why the decision might be controversial, but maintained that he believes the crew did the right thing anyway. “We have a rule that interfering is a very dangerous thing to do. But these penguins were going to die through a freak act of nature if nothing happened. How would this conversation be going if you said you saw them there and did nothing? I think you have to do it,” he said, per The Sun.
In the same conference, Attenborough touched on his firm stance on non-interference with nature. He said, “Tragedy is a part of life, you know. You can’t have sunshine throughout your life. To have done anything else would only make matters worse and distort the truth.”
But Gunton says even Attenborough approved of the crew’s decision: “I was speaking to David about it yesterday and he said he would have done the same, too.”
During a time when it seems like we are swarmed by frightening, disappointing and heartbreaking news on a daily basis, this news shines a little light on humanity’s goodness.