Viewers tuned in for a warm and fuzzy documentary about fluffy penguins, but what they got was a chilling view of the harsh realities of survival in the Antarctic.
They saw breeding Emperor penguins deal with finding their eggs frozen, and chicks abducted by grief-stricken parents whose own offspring had died.
They watched traumatised as a tiny penguin frantically tried to follow its mother up an icy cliff, only to tumble down, presumably to its death.
One viewer summed up the reaction to Sunday’s episode of Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentary, Dynasties, posting: “Baby penguin kidnap and abandonment – I can’t cope!”
After watching the penguins battle for survival in -42C temperatures and winds over 60mph, another viewer posted: “Dynasties is both heartbreaking and heart-warming.”
Lindsay McCrae filming the Emperor penguin colony at Atka Bay in Antarctica
Another wrote: “The prevailing themes of death and child kidnap in this penguin episode of #Dynasties are making me think maybe it wasn’t a good idea to suggest nine-year-old watches.”
But producer and director Will Lawson says: “Having experienced first hand an element of what they have to endure, I’ve got the most respect for Emperor penguins over any other animal I’ve ever filmed or encountered. They are quite incredible.”
While the penguins are equipped to deal with conditions in Atka Bay, it was a major challenge for the film crew.
Will was joined by camera assistant Stefan Christmann, and cameraman Lindsay McCrae, who missed the birth of his son to spend 11 months with the penguins in the Antarctic.
Lindsay says: “It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. We just had to live with it. We were there for 11 months, but eight of those were isolated. There was no way in or out.
“The dilemma was we’ll see things people will never get the chance to see. It’s something I couldn’t say no to. We went down in December and I knew our little man was due in April. By the time I got back he was seven months old.”
The crew lived on a German research station with nine other people.
They had no fresh food for six months and after the last supply plane left they knew they would be there for 245 days at least without any way out. Temperatures rose above zero only three times during the 337-day shoot, and they faced winds of 80mph in storms that lasted up to eight days.
The sun disappeared entirely for two months during the polar night.
Will says: “It is an extremely challenging place to film. Everything took two or three times longer than we had anticipated. While we attempted to film in some of the winds, a lot of our kit just completely froze solid.”
They needed five layers of clothing to go outside, took vitamin D supplements and use special lamps to make up for the lack of sunlight.
Lindsay says: “It definitely started to get worse once autumn hit. Temperatures started dropping really quick. If fog came through, everything would be covered in ice. When it got to -30C it’s without doubt the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt. I’m amazed how quickly we adapted.”
Film crews battled some of the coldest temperatures they’d ever experienced
(Image: BBC NHU/Stefan Christmann)
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But Will admits some days were extremely tough.
He says: “They were the coldest temperatures I’d ever been in, -42C and wind chill took it down to
-60C. Very difficult. There were a few days I questioned our own sanity as we sat around waiting for penguins to do something exciting as we very slowly froze. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
One day the crew discovered a piece of ice they had been filming on for weeks had broken off and floated away. Will says: “It was a huge wake-up call. We realised that the ice shelf was not as safe and secure as we thought.”
Their hard work in the face of danger paid off as the film made a huge impact on 6.1 million viewers.
One wrote: “I’m sorry but if I were a camera man on #Dynasties – I wouldn’t care for letting nature take its course. I’d run head-first into that snow storm rescue that abandoned penguin chick. Heart broke watching it tumble down like that.”
As we revealed on Saturday, the crew did abandon protocol to try to help penguins trapped in a gully.
In emotional scenes, they desperately dug a ramp in the snow to allow at least some of the penguins and their chicks to make their way out.
Will says: “It was unanimous from the outset that we helped them.
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“We hoped when we went back two days later there would be no animals left in that hole, but when we got there it was extremely sad. There were fewer females in the hole, but more chicks that hadn’t made it.
“It was inevitable. There was another storm on the way. That was the choice the mothers had to make. It was the only way they could survive.”
Their decision to intervene has been backed by Sir David.
Yesterday, executive producer Mike Gunton said: “I was speaking to David about it yesterday and he said he would have done the same too.”
While two thirds of the colony survived, there are genuine fears for the future of the penguins and their breeding ground if global warming continues at its current pace.
The Antarctic is covered by ice sheets, but as temperatures rise the ice masses melt, sea levels rise and this puts coastal regions and marine life under threat. Researchers have warned that the Emperor penguin population could drop by a third by the end of the century as melting sea ice impacts the population of krill, their main source of food.
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As well as experiencing awful low points as they watched the penguins struggle, there were also amazing highs for the crew, such as when they filmed the colony bathed in the eerie green glow of the Southern Lights.
Swathes of green, yellow, pink and white light rippled across the sky right above the penguins.
Will says: “We were hoping the penguins might be looking up in awe just like we were.
“But they didn’t seem fazed at all while the three of us were open-mouthed in utter shock. We were laughing because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
“I knew I would never see another natural phenomena that would beat what we had just experienced.”
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