With a timeline in the billions of years and a choice of vistas from the highest mountain peak to the deepest ocean trench, Nature is the greatest of cinematographers. Even the most routine of moments possesses tremendous beauty and commands our attention as a crucial component to an elegant system. With the changing of the seasons, key elements converge to create massive spectacles that stagger the imagination. For six of our planet’s most impressive events, David Attenborough is there to highlight not only the exquisite artistry, but also the fragile constitution of the system that makes these events possible. As always, the spectre of human intervention hangs heavily over the proceedings, as climate change, consumption of habitat for farm and industrial land, and outright extermination of species threatens these and other events across the globe. If you appreciate visual pageantry, or if you want to give your Blu-ray system a serious workout, this is the documentary series that will do the trick.
Two episodes in particular are standouts, and both take place on the African continent. ‘The Great Tide’ refers to The Sardine Run, taking place every few years off the coast of South Africa, where a shoal of sardines numbering in the hundreds of millions is lured from the cool ocean depths to the African coast where the world’s largest army of predators has gathered to ambush them. The sardine groups are drawn into cold water, as warm water tends to exist along shallows and coastal areas where their numbers cannot protect them from predators. As the cold Agulhas current pushes up along the coast during the winter months, it pushes back against currents coming from the north; this creates an abnormally frigid coastal artery that attracts and then traps the sardines.
The documentary spends ample time developing the characters of this mighty clash. Cape Gannets, remarkable in their stark beauty and their aerial dexterity, breed off the coast in enormous numbers, but the chance of survival for an individual chick is slim. Once they are strong enough to fly, their parents abandon them, and they have ten days to learn to fly or starve; if they successfully achieve flight, there is a chance they will falter in the breakers (hundreds are battered to death in the waves) or be killed by a seal. One gannet, thoroughly beaten by the relentless waves and rocks, hauls itself upon land and dies, the moment containing all the gravity of Shakespearean tragedy. If they survive, the gannets will form an integral part of the Sardine Run spectacle. They are joined by common Dolphin, who expertly hunt down and round up the sardines into small ‘bait balls’ that allows for easier hunting of individual fish. Various sharks, from Ragged-Tooth to Great Whites, take advantage of the dolphins’ work. Lastly the Bryde’s (pronounced Broo-duhs) Whale dives in to take ten thousand sardines in a single gulp. Once the predators find the shoal, the attack begins and is sustained with impossible intensity. The roiling sardines, expertly moving dolphins, and the divebombing gannets form a stunning visual poetry that transcends wildlife filmmaking and drifts into the realm of ageless elegance.
The other episode is less visually intense, but documents the violent and rather abrupt change that occurs in the Okavango Delta after intense rains fall upon the Angolan highlands and spill into a river that terminates not into a lake or ocean, but into the driest desert on earth. The Kalahari is almost devoid of plant life during its dry season, but the camera crew finds a herd of elephants struggling their way through this lethal setting. The matriarch is there for a reason, however, as she knows that the rains will fall, and the parched sands will come alive. Still, the tension created by this narrative is quite real, and most involving as you follow them into an uncertain future. When the precious water finds its way through dry river beds into the sands, the entire vista is transformed into a lake. As elephants, lions, cape buffalo, and various other savanna animals enter the fresh waters, we notice that the land itself seems to have come alive; fish explode from a distant marsh, and many species of frog actually live permanently in this desert, using the brief presence of water to exit hibernation, eat, breed, and reenter hibernation in an endless cycle.
Despite the triumphant moments the animals share, there is no guarantee that the life-providing cycle will continue. As the climate changes, water supplies dwindle, and the natural habitat that the flora and fauna require to replenish their numbers continues to be destroyed, these remarkable events may cease abruptly. Very little is understood about how these and most wildlife ecosystems really work. And therein lies the black-box warning: unless research into the intricacies of the planet’s ecosystems accelerates and serious effort is made to properly fuse the habitat of the human with the rest of its fellow species, disaster is guaranteed.