Antarctica - the coldest, windiest, most hostile continent. Only the toughest can survive here.

Published: 22 October 2019
It’s extraordinary that animals do survive, and that’s the narrative arc for this episode.
— Fredi Devas

From Weddell seals that grind back the ice with their teeth, to colourful starfish carpeting the seabed beneath the ice. Huge colonies of king penguins crowd any ice-free land, and four tonne elephant seals fight for territory on the beach.

Life comes here because the ocean that surrounds the continent is incredibly rich. Thousands of penguins, seals, albatross, and over a hundred great whales feast on krill baitballs. However, the ocean here is warming and with that comes an uncertain future.

Stories from filming

Number of days filming: 236

  • Footage of the largest great whale aggregation ever shot, nearly didn’t make it. Seven weeks searching for the sequence and on the one day it all came together the helicopter broke and the drone malfunctioned. However drone operator Bertie Gregory managed to save the memory card at the last minute!
  • Southern right whales are so trusting and curious of humans they would often swim up close to the team. They enjoyed the bubbles that the camera gear expelled, so much so they would stretch out their bellies above us so that the bubbles would hit their undersides giving them a tickle… The difference between a playful dog and a playful whale however is about 60 tonnes so the team had to be very careful!
  • It took the crew 11 days to get from BBC Bristol to Bird Island on the Antarctica albatross shoot, sailing through the Drake Passage, the roughest sea in the world in a boat that was 16.5m long

Filming locations and species

1. Weddell seal - McMurdo Station
2. King penguin - St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia
3. Elephant seal - St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia
4. Humpback whale and krill baitball - South Shetland Islands
5. Albatross - South Georgia and Bird Island
6. Gentoo penguin, orca and leopard seal - Cierva Cove
7. Under The Ice Narnia - McMurdo Station
8. Southern right whale - New Zealand islands
9. Peninsula whale - Elephant Island

Facts on species featured

  • When a new born weddell seal first touches the ice, it is the sharpest drop in temperature any animal ever faces
  • It is estimated that there are four hundred trillion krill in the southern ocean and that their combined weight is greater than that of any other animal species on the planet
  • If an albatross chick is not in the nest, the parents cannot recognise it by sight, smell or sound
  • Gentoo penguins are the fastest penguins in the sea and can swim at 22mph

Antarctica: did you know?

  • Antarctica was first sighted by humans just 200 years ago
  • The most hostile of all the continents
  • 98% of mainland Antarctica, an area one and a half times the size of the United States, is covered by ice
  • Winds in the Antarctic can reach 70mph
  • Antarctica is the largest desert in the world
  • Every day in winter, 40,000 more square miles of sea freezes over - by the end of winter the continent has doubled its size

An interview with Fredi Devas, producer of Antarctica

What can you tell us about Antarctica as a continent?

Antarctica is the most hostile of all the continents; it's the coldest, the highest, the windiest and the driest continent. So it's extraordinary that animals do survive, and that's the narrative arc for this episode: The varying hostilities that animals face and how they overcome them. Within the body of the film there is also an emotional story. We want to reflect on our place in the world and how that's having an impact on Antarctica. We talk about two things in particular: One is climate change, and how that's affecting animals in the region. Secondly, there’s whaling, and how that took the great whales almost to the brink of extinction.

Since the ban on commercial whaling, however, they're really bouncing back. We will show how that’s great not just for whales, but for the planet as a whole because whales act as a carbon sink - carbon sequestered from the atmosphere goes in to the plant life that's eaten by the krill, which are eaten by the whales. That goes down the food chain and then eventually drops to the bottom of the sea where it's locked away for thousands of years.

What type of species did you film?

One of our most dramatic sequences follows an adult gentoo penguin that is hunted down by four orcas. We also film gentoo chicks as they lose their down feathers and become ready to fledge. Now they're ready to brave the cold water for the first time in their life. It is an extraordinary story. A chick, the first time it ever goes for a swim, is faced not only with having never having swum before, and not in extremely cold water, but all the glaciers around have carved so there’s brash ice that absolutely fills the bays. The first shot you see where these chicks are going into the water, one of them gets crushed between blocks of ice and you see its body kind of drifting off. There are huge waves with massive blocks of ice in them, and then added to that they've got leopard seals hunting them. That's really dramatic, but we feature one which makes an amazing getaway.

Tell us about the sea anemones vs giant jellyfish?

Filming below sea ice is not easy. In Antarctica we drilled through nine feet of sea ice and then expert divers slipped down the hole like a slide in to the water. It’s incredibly hard, technical diving. They'll swim off, say for 40 minutes with no ropes; they've got no GPS because you can't get a signal through the ice. They just have to remember where they have come from. If they don't get back the system is that people above the ice have to go and clear the snow in the shape of arrows pointing towards the hole. The divers look up for where there might be a little bit more translucent light coming through the arrows.

But the world they reveal is really special - the sea floor is littered with starfish, with these nematode worms that are three metres long and all kinds of sea urchins and weird creatures that you hardly ever get to see. One amazing story we saw involved a giant jellyfish. They're supposed to be out in the open ocean, but this one has drifted in through the sea currents, and it gets taken down by these sea anemones. You think it's the giant jellyfish that's going to be eating the sea anemones but it's the sea anemones that are reeling it in. They just grab hold of the jellyfish’s tentacles and devour it.

What other sequences stood out for you?

We filmed the most southerly population of the most southerly mammal on the planet. Weddell seals give birth in spring; their pups will go from 37 degrees out on to the ice - it's a huge temperature drop straight away. Those pups can't swim for the first ten days of their life. When a storm comes weddell seals normally dive in to their breathing holes and spend the time in the water: It's minus two degrees, but it's a lot better conditions than what's raging above. But of course, these pups can't for those first ten days. So when a storm comes the female has to make the call. Will she leave her pup? Will it survive without her? I won’t spoil it but we did film an epic storm that lasted for days, we captured a female and her pup, and we captured the moment at which she abandons the pup.

The filming was treacherous in the extreme - to get out to the weddell seals we had to go on snowmobiles and in a blizzard situation, that's really tough. Then the cameramen would have to sit and try and keep their cameras steady in those big storms. In those temperatures there’s only so long you can endure before you have to go back to the base. Of course, that’s not an option for the seal pups…

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