A decade ago, Planet Earth redefined natural history filmmaking, giving us the ultimate portrait of life on Earth. Ten years on, advances in both filming technology and our understanding of the natural world mean we can reveal our planet from a completely new perspective – that of the animals.
Travelling through jungles, deserts, mountains, islands, grasslands and cities, this series explores the unique characteristics of Earth’s most iconic habitats and the extraordinary ways animals survive within them. New technology has allowed individual stories to be captured in an unparalleled level of detail.
For the first time viewers are immersed in incredible landscapes, allowing them to share the most dramatic moments in the lives of animals.
Island animals are among the most threatened. Of the species that have gone extinct in the last 500 years, around 80% have been islanders.
Mountains cover one fifth of the planet’s surface.
Jungles cover less than s6% of land, but are home to over half the plants and animals on Earth.
Grasslands support and sustain more large animals than any other habitat and are home to the greatest gatherings of wildlife on Earth.
Desert temperatures can reach a scorching 58°C, and all over the world these are rising more than the global average, and many are getting hotter and larger.
More new species are found in the worlds jungles than anywhere else on land.
Unlike other plants, grasses grow from their base and not their tip, so they are almost indestructible, capable of surviving fire, flooding, freezing and drought.
The urban environment is the newest and fastest growing habitat on our planet. In the next decade, the urban environment is predicted to grow by nearly 30%.
Animals living on remote islands are often quite naïve, because they’re not used to encountering humans. This was a benefit in filming Planet Earth II – the island animals were often quite relaxed around humans. Some, like the penguins, would waddle up to the camera and have a little nose!
While filming Frozen Planet, I worked with Antarctic yacht skipper, Jerome Poncet, who has over 40 years of experience visiting remote parts of Antarctica. When quizzing him about amazing places, he mentioned the island of Zavodovski – an active volcano that’s home to the world’s largest penguin colony. He said it was incredible, but people I spoke to who’d visited the island said that it’s a difficult place to access. The island is surrounded by rough ocean, and 30-foot cliffs.
The whole trip took more than a year of planning. We had to be entirely self-sufficient as there’s nobody down there to rescue you if it all goes wrong. It was the shoot I was most excited by, and absolutely the most terrified by. Six months in advance I’d wake up in the night thinking ‘what do we do if somebody slips and breaks a leg?’
It was a rough seven-day crossing to get there. On the final morning we saw an ominous volcanic plume on the landscape and I remember so clearly, I had a deep knot in my stomach. There was an awful lot of uncertainty – we knew that the sea around the island would be rough and there was no guarantee that we’d be able to land – but we were so fortunate. We arrived on a calm day and within 24 hours we were ashore, with all our kit. Literally the next day a storm came in and the boat had to retreat to the other side of the island. It was a week before the tender could come in for a resupply.
The only thing that really went wrong happened three days in. A huge wave came in over the cliff, and doused one of our cameras with water. We were seven days from the Falklands, there was no chance of us getting another camera so we were trying to dry the camera with heat packs and the cameraman was sleeping with it in his sleeping bag trying to warm it up. Eventually the seas calmed down and we were able to get the camera across to the boat and dry it out above the stove. Remarkably, it sprang to life and we were able to finish filming the sequence!
Throughout the trip there was a worry about getting off the island. We gave ourselves a window of three days, but the swell was too big. On the final afternoon – just as another storm was coming in – we managed to get ourselves and all the camping and filming equipment back down the cliff and on to the boat. It was incredible.
There’s a story in the Galapagos that I can’t wait for people to see. It’s the tale of hatchling marine iguanas that emerge from their eggs buried in the sand and have to cross the beach to reach the colony down by the sea. As they make their journey they are hunted by Galapagos racer snakes, that emerge from the rocks like a Medusa's head – all slithering and racing to capture the hatchling. They catch it, wrap around it and swallow it whole. I’ve never seen anything like it… it’s like something from a horror film! I don’t have a phobia of snakes, but I spent half the shoot with my hands in front of my eyes willing the poor hatchlings to escape! Thankfully some did make it to the sea.
Mountains by their nature are some of the most physical habitats to film in, because the animals often live at high altitudes and in difficult conditions. In addition, mountain animals tend to be thin on the ground. Because mountain habitats aren’t as productive as jungles or grasslands, your snow leopards and bears tend to be pretty sparsely spread throughout the terrain. Just finding the animals is the first challenge. I’m much fitter now than when I started this!
The remote cameras have been a big part of our success. We had a traditional crew on site who worked very hard to film the fight behaviour and the mating of the snow leopards. But remote camera traps allowed us to film the animals much more intimately in their landscapes. Historically, mountain films tend to involve shooting something on the other side of a valley with a long lens, which leaves you with quite a flat image. You don’t see the ridges they walk on, or the peaks they live in. Getting up amongst the pathways that the animals use has allowed us to bring their whole world to life. A lot of hard effort went into getting those shots.
The biggest struggle I had was the sheer physicality of it. When we were on the second snow leopard shoot, and trying to get more cameras higher than ever before – up to 5,000 metres in places – we were struggling. I managed to get acute mountain sickness and had to come down and spend a couple of days sitting in a hotel with an oxygen cylinder. Film crews carry so much stuff and everywhere we went we had to find ways to get in. There were some very physical days where you’d end up feeling sick from the exertion of it.
We wouldn’t have achieved anything without our incredible local team, whose knowledge of the snow leopards was second to none. They knew where they walked, they knew which rocks they sprayed on. We would walk for kilometres up into the mountains and they would find their paths and show us where the cats marked their territory by scraping their feet on the ground. This knowledge was invaluable to us. We got to know the porters really well. We did three shoots in Ladakh and for each shoot we had a small team of about six guys who helped us out. Because we went out there three times, we really got to know the people working for us, and their backgrounds and stories. There was lots of laughter, and they were so proud to be part of the project. They’d come and look at footage with us in the evening. They were especially excited as the snow leopard is their emblem and in their hearts. They’d never seen them in the way we’d shot them, and they were blown away with what we were getting. It made everyone work harder. If we were tired, they were always the first guys up. Our growing relationship with those people was really special.
We wanted to film golden eagles swooping in the mountains at 200mph. We got the footage, but to get the perspective of the bird, we employed a world champion paraglider, fitted him out with cameras and crossed over into the world of extreme sport. New territory for us and a real learning experience for everyone. We needed a shot of him buzzing down the side of a mountain, and we got it in the end by getting him to fly tandem with a cameraman who had never flown before. He made a very high-pitched scream on the way down!
The jungle is the most amazing place on the entire planet! The variety of insects, plants and animals is breathtaking, but for many of these species very little is known about them and even less have been filmed successfully.
The jungle has the perfect conditions for life, there is year-round rain, and at the top of the trees there is sunshine. But at ground level it is dark and damp. Hard conditions to work in and even harder to film. You can’t use most of our equipment if it’s raining, and rain can last for days on end!
The rainstorms can be more than just an inconvenience. On one shoot in the Brazilian flooded forest, we were travelling down river looking for a new species of river dolphin and suddenly out of nowhere this incredibly hard rainstorm came. It was hail, which the local people had never seen before and it completely stopped us in our tracks. It immediately broke the electric motor on the boat, which meant we couldn’t go anywhere and we were in danger of being pushed downstream without any way to stop ourselves. We pushed ourselves over to a sandy riverbank and the trees just started falling around us. We were lucky that no trees hit us and the storm calmed down and we survived, but there was about an hour of being stuck in the storm, not knowing how to get back to camp or where the rest of our team had gone. We were in the middle of nowhere, there was no medical care. It was scary!
The other challenge of filming in the jungle is that the undergrowth is really dense, which means it can be hard to see and follow the animals for long enough to film them. When filming jaguars in Brazil the forest is really thick and is crossed by rivers where the jaguars like to come down to hunt. We spent six weeks on these rivers using specially developed stabilised camera rigs (based on the Steadicam you see people using on the touchlines of football games). This meant we could film everything from the boats, no matter how fast and choppy the water got!
We wanted to film the unusual way that some jaguars here have learned how to hunt. After four weeks, we saw a large male jaguar, clearly on the lookout for food. We followed him on our camera boats but couldn't see what he was hunting for. Then he suddenly pounced into the water and after a few seconds re-emerged wrestling with a caiman almost his size and with jaws that could kill a person in seconds! He is one of the jaguars who has learned to take on this deadly prey, looking for an angle where he can, in one move, pin down the caiman and sink his teeth through the back of its skull. It was a pretty brutal scene, but an honour to see this beautiful and powerful jaguar at work.
There is of course one other major problem of filming in the jungle, that is sharing your accommodation with an impressive array of bugs and other animals. At one of the places we filmed in Brazil, the crew shared a single room with each other and a plague of spiders! Every time we picked up clothes there were spiders in them, they even got inside the mosquito nets. And there were rats, which I don’t mind, but they did eat through my underwear, so that was fun!
The indri is the largest lemur in Madagascar and one that is becoming increasingly rare. We filmed at a reserve called Mitsinjo in the centre of Madagascar, because here there is a family of indri here that have been followed by scientists for over 10 years. This close relationship between the indri family and the scientists meant that we knew approximately where the indri would be every day. Most of the time they move and sit about 20 metres above our heads, difficult to see and impossible to film, but every so often they would come down a little and then treat us to a good look at their elegant bouncing through the jungle. Just long enough for us to run after them with the stabilised cameras and capture their journeys on film. One of the youngsters is named David after Sir David Attenborough (although, confusingly, the indri David is a female).
When I first got to the desert, I realised how unaccustomed to this environment I was. I’m more used to filming in cold temperate climates like Alaska and the Falklands, so the heat of the desert took quite a lot of getting used to. It’s so hot and can be incredibly overbearing if you’re not used to it, so you end up sweating buckets. But it’s interesting how quickly you acclimatise.
Filming in Madagascar was an eventful trip on all fronts. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find a billion locusts, but you’d be surprised. We went to some very remote rural communities looking for them, and one by one we all got sick because of the local street food.
The locust sequence captures one of the largest swarms that has ever been recorded on film. It’s absolutely epic and we filmed it in a way that you might not have seen before. We’ve got a fantastic lion sequence shot by two very talented people. They managed to get access to this pride in Namibia, true desert lions who live right in the sand dunes. The sequence they shot shows the lions trying to take down a giraffe, which was epic. We’ve also filmed a species of bat that hunts scorpions, a species only recently described by science and we were able to film a big battle between this predator and its prey.
That all sounds big and epic and violent but we’ve also got a lovely sweet character. It’s called a golden mole and it’s about the size of a ping pong ball. It spends pretty much all of its life under the sand, and it only comes up to feed at night. But one got so accustomed to us that it would happily forage on the surface of the sand in the evening as the sun was setting, running around our feet as it did so. It meant that we were able to film this lovely mole in a way that not many people will have seen before, that’s very endearing. Even showing the footage to editors and sound mixers who’ve been doing this for years, they all pick up on the golden mole as their new favourite character.
Grasslands are really strange and unfamiliar places. In north-east India you get elephant grass, the tallest grass in the world. It grows to four metres tall, at a rate of two feet a day, and it’s impenetrable. Elephants will push their way through and create temporary tunnels. You end up with this network of beautiful carved grass tunnels, Alice in Wonderland like.
This elephant grass in India contains the greatest number of large animals in all of Asia. But because the grass is so tall, you can’t actually see them. So what you do for safety is go in on elephant back.
We also worked in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to film flooded grassland. I went down in a little boat with a local cowboy cameraman in this tiny metal dinghy.
Hours in, we got bogged in these thick reeds, surrounded by hippopotamus. They’re really aggressive, they kill more people in Africa than any other large animal. As it got close to sunset, we had to start getting out of the boat because it kept getting wedged into this thick mat of swampy reeds. The local cowboy told me to take my shoes off, because we wanted to be able to react as quickly as possible if we stepped on a crocodile. We’re pushing a boat through the Okavango, surrounded by deadly crocodiles and hippos, at night, barefoot, trying to feel for crocodiles and at that stage I thought ‘I’m an idiot, I should have known better, what have I done?’ Our legs got slashed to ribbons by swordgrass, and our faces were getting eaten alive by mosquitos. From head to toe we were decimated, and our legs were just bleeding with thousands of cuts. Every single step you’re taking in this water you can’t see, you’re feeling for the texture of a crocodile back and getting ready to jump. That was the most hair-raising it got.
But if there’s an animal and a place that I’m most excited about bringing to people, it’s the Saiga antelope. It’s this wonderfully bizarre-looking creature that used to roam across the tundra in tens of millions, but got decimated very quickly by poaching and hunting so the last few herds are left in the middle of nowhere. We went deep into the middle of Kazakstan, driving for days with nothing around, to find the calving herds of this amazing animal. To go somewhere so remote to see an animal that looks like it’s from another planet was just incredible.
There’s a slight twist to the story. When we were out there in the calving grounds, with hundreds of thousands of females all giving birth at the same time, a very virulent disease swept through the population and killed around 150,000 of them in a matter of three days. At the time we thought we were watching the greatest natural catastrophe that I’d ever heard of. We watched 150,000 of these magnificent animals die in front of us. At the time we didn’t know if it was the final extinction of the species, which was devastating, emotionally, for the crew. But we’ve since heard that the last few mothers and babies we filmed for Planet Earth II have survived. It was a potent reminder of how fragile yet resilient nature can be.
I worked on Frozen Planet and Wild Arabia before this, but shooting in the city is much harder than anywhere else. Normally if you’re filming in nature reserves you only need one permit for your entire shoot, but we were looking to access the rooftops of about 30 different skyscrapers in New York.
You also have to contend with people. Mostly people are great, but when you’re filming at night, you realise that some people are drunk and want to know what you’re doing around such dangerous animals. It’s all quite new territory for a wildlife filmmaker.
I’ve always found hyenas to be quite terrifying animals. In Harar in Ethiopia one night, we were surrounded by more than a hundred of them, fighting. They were fighting on the outskirts of town to see who’d gain access to the city. They’re the second-largest land predator in Africa after the lion.
They were extraordinary. There are two hyena clans who regularly use the city. To work out who gets access, they go to a place outside the city limits and have a fight. A piece of ground where they can meet up like the gangs in Westside Story and have it out – and they really go for it. You’ve got a hundred around you, running around your legs, constantly turning on each other. You do think that if they turned on you, you’re gone. That’s it. If they decided that we were the problem, that would be that, but luckily they didn’t.
In other areas of Africa it’s relatively common to hear about a hyena taking a child, but they really do have a peaceful pact with the people of Harar. The people respect the hyenas, they think of them as religious entities, and this relationship has been going on for over 400 years. I spoke to a lady who had loads of goats on the outskirts of the city. She said that the hyenas walk through her smallholding every single night, and if the goats are still out then they will charge them off with their horns. Anywhere else in Africa, that would be the other way around. Somehow, this pact exists and it’s extraordinary.
Mumbai has the highest density of leopards in the world. There are around 35 living in quite a small forested area. They feed on deer and animals in that forest, but they also head out into the peripheries of the park at night and feed on domesticated animals like pigs and dogs. They also kill humans. What I find extraordinary is that they’ve been eating and killing people for decades, but the Indian people are still tolerant of them living there. I can’t think of another country where a relocation program would not have been put into place by now. Indian people are totally remarkable in their tolerance of allowing animals into their city. The relationship between animal and man – the acceptance and compassion and just their ability to share a city with each other – made it stand out as a place that was completely inspiring.
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