Planet Earth II’s most mindblowing moments

Frogs v wasps? Lions v giraffes? The BBC nature spectacular has come to an end – but which scenes will we be talking about in years to come?

It has been pretty special, Planet Earth II. The grandeur, splendour and power of the natural world, seen closer, sharper, trapped, from above, below, underwater, at night and in amazing new ways. Sometimes new things even, never seen before and never more precious, fragile and important than now.

Even among the extraordinary, it is possible to stand out and be extra extraordinary, and there has generally been a stand-out scene in each episode, something you want to talk about at work or at school the next morning (Planet Earth II has also felt like event television: something the nation wants to sit down and watch together). I think these are them, the OMG WT-ACTUAL-F moments, as I believe Sir David Attenborough refers to them.

Episode one: Islands

Galapagos racer snakes lurk beneath the rocks.
Galapagos racer snakes lurk beneath the rocks. Photograph: BBC

Duh! The racer snakes, obviously, chasing baby marine iguanas down the beach in the Galapagos Islands. Because of the way they lurk in dark crevices, alert, ready, apparently excited for iguana-hatching time. Because of the numbers of them, and the way they hunt in packs. Because of the teamwork, some coming in from the sides and others skulking in the rocks on the way to the sea, so even if little iggy outruns the chasers, it will almost certainly be grabbed from the flanks or ambushed. Because it is like the highest level of a video game, Grand SnakeChase, when the odds of success are almost zero. Because of the horribleness of the inevitable, disappearing in a writhing, tightening knot of terror. Because of the goddamn sadness and injustice of it; what kind of life is that for an iguana, a few seconds of fear and a gruesome end before they even get to meet their parents?

If racer snakes haven’t already slithered into your nightmares, they will soon. They’re coming to get you.

Episode two: Mountains

Nubian ibexes in the Arabian cliffs.
Nubian ibexes in the Arabian cliffs. Photograph: BBC

It could have been the waltzing flamingoes, but I’ve seen them before – they’re already YouTube stars. Or eagle-cam, but then the Beeb-bashing Daily Mail outed the eagle as a pet. So I’m going for the Nubian ibexes – goats, basically, that bring up their babies on Arabian cliffs. It’s a nice finger – or hoof – up to health and safety but, Jesus, does it really have to be a 1,000-metre sheer precipice, with just the tiniest, crumbliest little ledges to cling to? And now they need water, which means coming down, one ledge to the next, and the babies have only just learned to walk. Careful! Agggh, nooooo ... just made it.

Then, when they get to the relatively flat ground, obviously there’s a fox waiting for them, so it turns into another chase (Planet Earth II is all about the chase) and the young ibexes have to do some death-defying rock jumping and bolt back up the cliff again, to just about cling on to the ledge, to life.

Episode three: Jungles

The Costa Rican glass frog fights off a wasp.
The Costa Rican glass frog fights off a wasp. Photograph: BBC

Rainforests are difficult. Obviously, there are tons of fauna about, but there are also a lot of flora (can’t someone cut all the trees down?), so the animals are hard to see – and film. So you would think that jaguar v caiman would be an easy winner, but the kill – of the caiman! – is obscured by branches (was that really the sound of the caiman’s skull crunching or was it added afterwards, by the way?). So I’m going smaller: a tiny glass frog in Costa Rica.

This transparent little fella is guarding his eggs when a wasp turns up to eat them. Amazingly, some of the unhatched tadpoles sense danger, wriggle out early and drop into the stream to safety. (Well, there’s bound to be something lurking in there, too, but thankfully we’re not told about it.)

Daddy glass frog, meanwhile, has to protect his most recent eggs, which can’t do this. He lies by them, looking a bit like them and, when the murderous wasp comes in for the kill, he lashes out with a hind leg – bam! More wasps turn up, a whole squadron of the little sods, and the frog kickboxes back – bam, pow, zap! It’s like Bruce Lee v Apocalypse Now, and it’s profoundly moving because he is fighting for the life of his babies.

Episode four: Deserts

A lion races a giraffe in the Namib desert.
A lion races a giraffe in the Namib desert. Photograph: BBC

Easy. Lions v giraffe in the Namib desert of Southern Africa. Lions wouldn’t normally take on such formidable prey, but this pride is desperate, having not eaten for days. They work as a team and a trap is set. The pack chases, the giraffe runs – surprisingly quickly – and it looks as if it’s going to be OK. But the head lioness is waiting up ahead, ready to pounce …

Which she does. She leaps high (she has to, this is a giraffe, remember) and grabs the giraffe around the neck to bring it down. With a shrug, the giraffe simply shakes her off and then runs her over, kicking her when she’s down.

I remember when Jonah Lomu died, watching compilation videos of him in his prime, outrunning the pack, then with just the opposition fullback waiting to bring him down, he ploughs straight through as if they weren’t there. It’s like that.

Episode five: Grasslands

An arctic wolf hunts for caribou on the Canadian tundra.
An arctic wolf hunts for caribou on the Canadian tundra. Photograph: BBC

A tough one: lions v buffalo or wolf v caribou? I’m going for the latter because the lions have had their moment, and because the other is so butt-clenchingly tense. In the far north, a superherd of caribou moves across the tundra, maggots from above. Of course, there is a predator lying in wait. What big teeth you have, arctic wolf. It runs at the herd to flush one out and a calf is separated. The wolf locks on, gives chase. The wolf is faster and closes in, but – surprisingly – it doesn’t have the stamina of the caribou. It’s like a mechanics problem: body A is travelling at a constant speed of Xm/s followed by body B, which is travelling at X-plus-a-bit m/s but then, at a distance of 10 metres, it decelerates at a rate of Ym/s⁲. Do they meet?

Except that these bodies are warm and furry, and the question is: does the wolf eat? I found myself torn – I mainly wanted the little one to get away but, a bit guiltily, part of me was hoping for a kill. Well, the wolf needs to eat, too. It didn’t, not this time – it ran out of steam when it was almost snapping at the caribou’s heels.

Episode six: Cities

The shoplifting macaques of Jaipur.
The shoplifting macaques of Jaipur. Photograph: BBC

The best episode of the lot, because of the extraordinary juxtaposition of animals with humans. And so many WTF moments: the shoplifting parkour monkeys of Jaipur, the pig-snatching silhouetted night leopards of Mumbai, the feuding gangland hyenas of Harar, the French bird-eating catfish monsters, the Roman mega-murmations, the plummeting peregrines of New York …

So, I’m going to pick out another kind of moment, less OMG; more listen up. Near the top of another skyscraper, the Shard in London, perches a wise old owl, to remind us that it’s not just about chasing, killing and sexing.

It’s so easy to lose our connection with the natural world, yet its future – and ours – depends on that connection, says the owl. Because this owl is a talking one called David. “It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us but for all life on Earth.”


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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