Walrus death plunge ‘is always in my head – and that’s a good thing’
'Our Planet' director Sophie Lanfear describes what really made the animals jump off a cliff, and has the perfect response to her critics
When filmmaker Sophie Lanfear arrived at the small island off Russia’s Arctic coastline in the autumn of 2017, the signs that something had gone terribly amiss were apparent: dozens of walrus carcasses littered the rocky shore.
But it was not until a few days into filming an episode in the new Sir David Attenborough series, Our Planet, that she found out why.
As a result of melting sea ice, the walruses have started gathering in such high numbers on the island that the only space left is at the top of a precipitous cliff face. They haul themselves up, then become disoriented and confused about how to reach the sea below, and hurl themselves off the edge.
Lanfear and her team captured the walruses bouncing hundreds of feet down the jagged rock face, before landing bloodied and broken below. “I think about it all the time,” says the 36-year-old. “I felt so helpless. Just seeing an animal that doesn’t know what is happening is so incredibly heartbreaking. The hardest thing was watching them still in pain. It made me really self-reflective. I thought, we need to get this message out there.”
After the initial stir has come the inevitable backlash.
Susan Crockford, a Canadian zoologist from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, branded the clip “contrived nonsense”. She accused the filmmakers of “tragedy porn”, arguing that the animals were almost certainly driven over the cliff by polar bears.
Lanfear’s response is a masterpiece in contained fury. After all, she and her team spent seven weeks on that rocky outcrop. “They were not being driven off the cliffs by polar bears. We know this because we had two team members watching the cliffs from afar, who could see the polar bears and were in radio communications with us to warn us about any approaching,” she said this week.
“Fundamentally, the reason walruses used this haul-out location is because of a lack of sea ice, meaning they are coming ashore more frequently than they did in the past.”
Made by Attenborough’s long-term collaborator and founder of Silverback Films Alastair Fothergill in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Our Planet prides itself on its scientific rigour. Dr Mark Wright, WWF director of science, says it was his role to ensure credibility. “The walrus sequence stops you in your tracks; it is harrowing and emotional. It didn’t need to happen and that is the point. That does come down to us.”
Already the walrus scene is the standout from the series. If you search Our Planet on Twitter you will find a stream of messages posted by devastated viewers. It has made a point of showing what other nature programmes have not – that the decline of wildlife, as Wright says, is down to people. This has prompted a debate over whether such visceral images of the reality of climate change serve to alienate, rather than galvanise, the wider public.
According to Lanfear – who previously worked at the BBC’s Natural History Unit before joining Silverback Films in 2014 – Our Planet is tapping in to a demand previously revealed by the reaction to the plastic pollution shown in Blue Planet II. “People want to know the conservation message, they don’t just want pretty pictures and that is brilliant.”
It is 65 years since Attenborough first appeared on the nation’s screens and, as the 92-year-old has entered the twilight of his career, the message of his programmes has sharpened.
On April 18, he will present the hour-long BBC One special Climate Change: The Facts. He has admitted that he was previously reluctant to speak out on climate change, because he felt scientists were better equipped to do so. But in a speech at the Our Planet premiere, he said the urgency of the situation had changed his mind.
“He spoke about how we’re the first generation to realise what we are doing and the last to do anything about it,” says Lanfear. “We have to take ownership of this problem and wake up to the huge challenges.”
According to Lanfear, no walrus had been seen at that Arctic island for a century, until they suddenly started arriving there in 2006. Previously they would stay on ice floes, closer to their feeding ground, but the rapid melting ice forced them to seek pastures new. During filming, there were 108,000 Pacific walruses (around half the species’ global population) crammed on to the small land mass, meaning every inch was covered. At one point, the hut where the team of seven filmmakers and scientists was staying was surrounded, and they could only film from the roof.
“I was the only woman and none of us had washed for seven weeks,” Lanfear says. “It really stank.”
Polar bears are certainly a menace. In another location in 2015, Lanfear returned to her cabin to find it had been ravaged by a bear who ate the entire food supply, save for a jar of Marmite. But while content to feast on the walrus carcasses beneath the cliffs, Lanfear, who has a zoology degree from Bristol University, is adamant the bears played no part in them falling to their deaths.
She explains that the team watched the animals teetering back and forth unsteadily for hours, before falling. During filming, about 650 walruses died this way, as well as another 400 or so at another site. She believes it is down to herd mentality.
“They are gregarious and hang around in social groups. When the others below decide to go back to water, the ones on the top of the cliffs can sense they are leaving and that makes them anxious.”
Lanfear was joined on the shoot by her partner, Jamie McPherson, the principal cameraman. Both of them are visibly moved on film. At one point, Lanfear stands in front of a dying walrus, in tears. “I guess the walrus is always there in my head, which sounds crazy. But it’s good to have it there, reminding you of how you can [help] the environment.”
Other moments of high drama
Iguana vs snake
Possibly one of the most dramatic chase scenes in nature documentary history appeared in Planet Earth II, when a baby marine iguana ran for its life from racer snakes on the beaches of the Galapagos Islands.
At one point, the hatchling looks like it might have lost the fight, getting tangled up in a cluster of reptiles, before making a last leap to safety.
When it aired in 2016, it was a viral sensation, even nabbing the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Must-See Moment.
The trapped penguins
Another tear-jerker saw penguin mothers and their baby chicks freezing to death after getting stuck down a steep ravine in the recent Dynasties series, following a snowstorm.
Some of the birds huddled together ready for the inevitable, others abandoned their little ones to climb the slippery slope to escape alone. The traumatic scene caused quite a stir on social media, with documentary crew later having to admit they had actually broken the golden rule of documentary film making and dug a shallow ramp to aid the helpless birds.
A lonely grey seal
In the 2011 series Frozen Planet we watched on tenterhooks as a group of killer whales in Antarctica worked together to knock their prey, a little grey seal, off the block of ice.
The whales ganged up using a highly sophisticated means of hunting: crashing waves, using the motion to push the ill-fated creature into the watery depths.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)