Our Planet II director on his close encounters with sharks and pumas
As the latest season narrated by Sir David Attenborough comes to Netflix, we caught up with Toby Nowlan about why getting the perfect footage never comes without its risks.
Following on from the Emmy Award-winning Planet Earth and Our Planet comes Our Planet II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The focus of the four-part Netflix series is to examine how and why animals all over the world migrate.
We spoke exclusively to producer/director Toby Nowlan, who worked on episode 1, World on the Move, and episode 3, The Next Generation, to discuss his filming highlights, both of which included very close encounters with the wildlife.
In the first episode, the crew travelled to the seas of Laysan, one of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are 1,000km from the main Hawaiian Islands. It takes five days of sailing to reach the remote location, where no one has filmed before.
There, albatross chicks are dependent on their parents for food for their first five months, until they’re ready to take flight to find their own meals. They’re pretty weak during their first flight when they head for the ocean, where tiger sharks that have travelled as far as 2,000 miles lie in wait to feed on unlucky fledglings.
The Our Planet II team set out in inflatable boats to find the sharks to start filming, but the 15-foot-long tiger sharks had other ideas.
“This ’v’ of water came streaming towards us and this tiger shark leapt at the boat and bit huge holes in it. The whole boat exploded,” Nowlan explains. “We were trying to get it away and it wasn’t having any of it. It was horrific. That was the second shark that day to attack us.”
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Luckily, they were only about 100 metres from land, so they were able to get the boat, which had just enough inflation, on to the beach. They patched it up and sent out a small rubber dinghy, which was then attacked by giant trevallies (fish) that knocked its motor out.
The sharks’ behaviour was “extremely unusual”, says Nowlan. “They were incredibly hungry, so there might not have been enough natural food and they were just trying anything they came across in the water.”
Another close call occurred in episode 3 while Nowlan and his cameraman John Shier were watching a puma family in Patagonia. They waited for three weeks “just pacing up and down, walking with the cat”, while a puma mother was showing her cubs how to hunt, so they could learn how to become independent. She had many failed hunts before striking lucky.
Then, within three metres of Nowlan and Shier, she brought down an adult bull guanaco. “We were standing on the side of this hill just watching with bated breath in silence, and then suddenly it happened,” Nowlan says.
“She leapt on the guanaco’s back and they came thundering straight towards us. There was nowhere to run, we were stuck out there in the open. I thought the guanaco was going to take us out completely. The cat was thrown about, but just kept jumping back on.”
It was the longest hunt Shier has ever experienced and only the second successful hunt he’s ever filmed. When it came down to attempting to move out of the way or capturing the scene on camera, it was a no-brainer, says Nowlan: “I didn’t want to disturb the behaviour or the moment. We were like, ‘Get it on film, get it on film!’ It was the most awesome wildlife experience I’ve ever had.”
Across 934 days of filming, 21 countries were visited on seven continents. Buffalos in Botswana, walruses in the Arctic, Asian elephants in China, army ants in the Amazon rainforest and Tawaki penguins in New Zealand are just a few of the other animals featured in Our Planet II.
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