Planet Earth II – ‘Islands’

planetearthiiislandsCONTAINS SPOILERS

Planet Earth was a groundbreaking BBC natural history documentary that was broadcast in 2006, and narrated by David Attenborough. It was one of the very best TV series of the 2000s.

Ten years on, this is the sequel, Planet Earth II, making use of technology that has been developed since the first series. Once again it is narrated by David Attenborough.

The first episode focused on ‘Islands’.

Early on in the episode and there is already quite an adorable sight and one rarely seen on TV, a pygmy sloth swimming in the sea. Pygmy sloths are a rare creature generally, in fact their entire population is on the island of Escudo.

Komodo dragons look a bit like how dinosaurs are often presented in films, and indeed komodo dragons are currently “the largest living lizard on the planet”. They are named after one of the islands they live on, Komodo. It is unusual to have such large predators on an island, as most of the time islands don’t provide enough food for them, but reptiles are cold-blooded, so do not need as much food as a carnivore mammal does. There is intense footage of komodo dragons fighting over food  and over mating rights. They bite and whip their tails at each other and we see them ripping a carcass apart between them.

Madagascar has many different varieties of lemur. Indri lemurs spend most of their time in the trees, while ringtail lemurs mainly stick to the ground. Those species both live in lush forests, whereas the sifaka lemur lives in a hostile, dry forest which looks more like a desert, with cacti, leafless trees, dry dead brown grass, and plants covered in spines.

Volcanoes sometimes form islands, there have been ten in the last 50 years. We saw spectacular footage, which looked like many have imagined Hell to be. Fiery orange and
blood red, along with black molten lava and smoke. The island of Fernandida is an island that has been formed by a volcano. It is mainly made up of black rocks and has no real plantlife. But in stark contrast to the dead land, the life in the sea around the island is very rich. One of the most fascinating creatures that lives on the island are marine iguanas, an animal I hadn’t heard of before, but I really like them from what I’ve seen on here. They mostly dwell on the land, but swim in the sea for food, so they can graze on the plantlife underwater, as there isn’t enough on the island itself. It is quite funny to see a smaller lizard on the iguana’s head using it as a perching spot to catch flies.

Marine iguanas lay their eggs in the sand, and when they hatch the babies have to make their own way to the sea to join the adults. But they have to get past loads of racer snakes. In some of the most compelling scenes in the programme, the iguana hatchings were pursued by the snakes. As often nature, it’s two creatures fighting for survival and a battle of skills. The iguana hatchings can usually outrun the snakes, but the snakes sometimes wait and hide in rocks or in the sand before attacking. The snakes however, have poor eyesight and their vision is based on movement, so one way to dodge them is for the hatchling to stay perfectly still temporarily. But not for long, as the snakes will come and attack, sometimes en masse. It is unsettling to see when the snakes catch some hatchlings and coil around and consume their prey, but one satisfying outcome is when one iguana hatchling manages to slip through the snake and escape to safety.

Fairy terns in the Seychelles have very angelic looking white wings, and one we saw here had a bright blue beak and feet. They do not build nests, sometimes they just lay their egg on a branch! One egg was left unattended and a Seychelles fody pecked the eggs shell and ate some of the yolk. But what followed was more tragic, when the mother returned, and still tried to incubate the broken egg. She later laid another egg and managed to raise a cute, fluffy chick. Its down was a similar colour to the branch meaning unlike the egg it could be camouflaged.

Still in the Seychelles, noddies nest in Pisonia trees. These trees have sticky seeds, which stick to the fledglings who carry them to other islands so a Pisonia tree can grow there. However, sometimes the fledglings get covered with the seeds, and are too weighed down to fly, so they starve. There is the disturbing sight of a fledglings corpse, which will now become fertilizer for the Pisonia trees.

An island near New Zealand has many types of bird which come over to breed, including shearwaters, which nest on the ground as there are no predators. This is a bit like the dodo. The dodo is often characterised as something which somehow “deserved” extinction because it was stupid, but this is unfair. The dodo was flightless, unlike the shearwaters, but what they do have in common is it chose to build nests on the ground due to lack of predators there, and unfortunately for the dodo humans arrived and brought dogs and cats with them, which ate their eggs.

We are still causing similar problems for island species today too. Red crabs on Christmas Island are having problems with their numbers due to yellow crazy ants, which were introduced to the island by humans.  The yellow crazy ants have taken over huge territories of the island. Red crabs migrate in millions to the sea to mate, and if they go near the yellow ants territory, the ants will blind them with acid, leaving them helpless and doomed to a die.

‘Islands’ ends with Zavadovski Island, which is an active volcano, and the largest penguin colony in the world. It is tough for the penguins though. One returning penguin father is absolutely covered in blood after the long journey at sea to find food for his chick, and there’s the sight of penguins looking tiny in a powerful white sea with waves
beating down heavily on rocks.

On the whole, Planet Earth II ‘Islands’ felt very like a blockbuster movie, from the opening title sequence. I have mixed feelings on this. The cinematography and ultra high-definition format was good for getting across how beautiful and breathtaking nature is, and if anything deserves to be shown through ultra high-defintion in all its glory it is the natural world. I personally didn’t really care for the grandiose blockbuster movie like musical score. It felt slightly intrusive, but maybe that’s a nitpick. It was still a great start to the series.

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