Equator review – a big new beast in the nature TV world

It may lack the opulence of David Attenborough’s output, but the first part of Sky’s new series about the marvels of the natural world is hugely informative – and very fun

The male frigate bird inflates a huge red pouch beneath its beak while cawing to captivate female mates. On the Galápagos islands, it’s the basis of a mating ritual; on Tinder, it might get you banned.

But as we learned form the first of this tremendously informative six part series, Equator, about the equatorial region’s flora and fauna (Sky Nature), sexy inflatable neck pouches aren’t all that the frigate bird has got to offer. Rather, what’s most striking is the way it has hitched its evolutionary wagon to the booby bird, even changing its breeding patterns to synchronise with the boobies and shadowing them through the Pacific skies before pouncing and seizing their dinner. In human terms, it’s like a Deliveroo driver being stalked by a rival with a clever, if illegal, business model.

We saw a booby plunge head first into the sea to seize a fish. But as it rose skywards with its catch, a frigate bird – a kind of airborne pirate – eyed it narrowly and then swooped. The frigate bird is poor at catching fish, but superb at stealing another bird’s catch. It seized the tail of the booby midair and shook it until the booby released the fish from its gullet. The frigate bird then swooped to catch the falling fish and flew off to feast on it.

Such niche evolutionary moves are not unusual here, as we will see in a moment when we consider the incredible shrinking marine iguana. Or consider the butterfly fish: in the Palmyra atoll, also along the equator, they feed on coral reefs, while in the waters of the eastern Galápagos they become cleaner fish, dining on bigger fishes’ parasites.

The frigates’ midair thieving must be distressing to boobies because life on the Galápagos is otherwise chill, with no natural land predators. The Galápagos cormorant has gone a stage further in lowering its evolutionary guard: over millennia it has stopped using its wings for flying.

The makers of Equator carved their own niche in a TV environment where it’s adapt or die. Like the bump-headed parrot fish, which spends its life eating coral with a parrot-like beak, excreting sand and head-butting sexual rivals at mating time. Or the giant manta ray, which is three metres wide, most of it mouth, down which it sucks zooplankton as it rises. Similarly, the programme makers conferred on themselves an evolutionary advantage by not doing what everybody else in natural history docs does. How delightful that they dispensed, in particular, with some preening presenter who, after racking up air miles to get on location, lectures us on environmental damage as they interpose themselves between viewers and what the programme is notionally on about. How nice that here humans aren’t the stars of the show.

Equator – though by no means as visually sumptuous as Blue Planet – was probably more informative than much of David Attenborough’s hallowed oeuvre. Well-judged graphics and a literate script helped me understand for the first time how the spin of the sun and the Earth combine to produce trade winds, and that the resultant oceanic currents and cross-currents create microclimates such as those around the Galápagos.

However, the best thing about the documentary was its rebuke to human hubris. Consider the Galápagos’s marine iguana. Have you ever shrunk yourself by a quarter to give yourself a greater chance of survival than your peers in cooler temperatures? Have you lowered your heart rate and body temperature by more than 10C so you can dive to the seabed and graze on algae for two hours without freezing to death, in waters 15 degrees colder than the surface? Have you then struggled to return to the surface, or even digest said algae because your muscles are so cold? And so have you spread yourself out on a rock, suppressed hunger pangs and waited for hours for the equatorial sun to warm you so that you can digest the food that’s been sitting heavy in your stomach?

If you answered yes to any of the above, strap yourself in for a lie detector test. In truth, like me, you haven’t got what it takes to survive in extremis.

• This article was amended on 10 August 2020 to remove a reference to the “giant cormorant”; this bird’s correct name is the Galápagos or flightless cormorant.

Contributor

Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The World According to Putin review – sex, lies and state-approved videotape
This surreal look at Russian TV showed a foreigner-bashing propaganda machine in full swing – just the thing to distract from a nation in chaos

Stuart Jeffries

30, Oct, 2019 @11:00 PM

Article image
Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones review – the threat is terrifyingly real
In the wake of an assassination attempt and the three-day drone calamity at Gatwick, action man Aldo Kane explores the latest anxiety to add to our ever expanding list

Lucy Mangan

01, Jul, 2019 @9:30 PM

Article image
The Truth About Alcohol review – it’s still not especially good for you, shockingly
A genial A&E doctor experiments on himself and others to tell us things we already know. Plus: The Catch, an insubstantial but addictive thriller

Sam Wollaston

27, May, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
Is Uni Racist? review – disturbing accounts of discrimination on campus
Linda Adey’s documentary considers the piecemeal response of higher education providers to race-related incidents, and explains why some students are afraid to speak up

Lucy Mangan

28, Apr, 2021 @10:25 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge review – 25 years of oddball odysseys
This new four-part series sees the documentary maker revisit the highlights of his long and varied career, from cornering hucksters to run-ins with neo-Nazis

Lucy Mangan

06, Sep, 2020 @9:00 PM

Article image
63 Up review – documentary marvel makes all other reality TV look trivial
Michael Apted’s groundbreaking seven-yearly series returns, seeming more dreamlike than ever as it follows its subjects into retirement and beyond

Lucy Mangan

04, Jun, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Richard Hammond Builds a Planet; No Fire Zone – TV review
Sam Wollaston: The Top Gear-ification of everything on TV continues, with lots of pointless footage of our titular hero firing machine guns and zooming around in helicopters

Sam Wollaston

04, Nov, 2013 @7:01 AM

Article image
Hotel India review – an insight into the terrifying levels of ennui among the rich
BBC2's tour of daily life at Mumbai's luxury hotel promised a glimpse of a unique world – but just served as PR puff for a place where the guests come across as people you would want to avoid at breakfast

John Crace

28, Aug, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
Growing Up Gifted review – some hope amid the classism and cruelty
In the first of a second series, we witnessed six above-averagely intelligent teenagers continuing to battle the effects of poverty and nonconformity

Lucy Mangan

18, Feb, 2019 @10:00 PM

Article image
Kids on the Edge review – an antidote to the hysteria around gender identity
The first of Peter Beard’s three-part series looking at children’s mental health visits an NHS identity development clinic and steadily dismantles inaccurate fears around what is clearly a complex process

Rebecca Nicholson

17, Nov, 2016 @7:20 AM