Dynasties filmmakers tried to rescue as many baby penguins as they could – breaking the rules set by Attenborough himself in the process.
Sir David Attenborough’s Dynasties, a follow up to last year’s Blue Planet II, focuses on five species fighting for survival — chimpanzees, emperor penguins, lions, painted wolves and tigers.
In the opening episode of the landmark TV series (which aired on 11 November), producers left a chimpanzee to die after watching him be viciously attacked by a rival group.
However, when a family of newly-hatched Emperor Penguin chicks became trapped in an icy ravine during episode two, things were very different. Instead of watching and observing, the Antarctica camera crew decide to cut “stairs” into the ravine so that the mother can haul herself and her babies to safety.
Speaking at the launch of the landmark series, executive producer Michael Gunton explained: “We have a rule that interfering is a very dangerous thing to do. But these penguins were going to die through a freak act of nature if nothing happened.”
As reported by The Sun, Gunton added: “How would this conversation be going if you said you saw them there and did nothing? I think you have to do it.”
So why did the crew decide to save the penguins, but not the dying chimpanzee? Well, because they could rescue the chicks without interfering with the lives of other animals.
It is a matter that Attenborough feels very strongly about. Indeed, speaking at the event, the legendary broadcaster insisted that “tragedy is a part of life” and to do anything other than watch only makes matters worse.
Citing the example of a wildebeest calf being chased by a leopard, Attenborough said: “What do you do? Suppose you did something that frightened the leopard off, the fawn would be disorientated and would probably not even be able to find its way home, so it is likely to die.”
“The leopard would go off and have to find another fawn and it is likely to have problems with its cubs.”
Attenborough also recalled an “absolutely agonising” experience filming a mother and baby elephant dying of thirst in a desert, where he wouldn’t step in to give them water.
“All you’re doing is prolonging the death. So you make things infinitely worse,” he said, adding that “all you can do there is watch tragedy”.
“Tragedy is part of life and you have to show it,” insisted Attenborough. “You can’t have sunshine throughout your life. And to have done anything else would only have made matters worse and distort the truth.”
Of course, this time around, the decision to interfere paid off, with a large number of penguins able to rejoin the colony.
And, while controversial, the crew’s action has drawn a largely positive response from viewers.
It is not the first time that Attenborough’s rules have been broken. Many fans of Planet Earth 2 may remember that the crew famously rebelled in 2016, when hundreds of baby turtles became disorientated by city lights and began crawling towards a busy highway rather than the ocean.
Instead of allowing nature to run its course, though, the team intervened to rescue as many baby turtles as they possibly could.
“Every turtle that was seen or filmed by the #PlanetEarth2 crew was collected and put back into the sea,” they confirmed on Twitter.
At the time, a BBC source was keen to stress that the problem was “man-made”; as such, it was incredibly appropriate that man stepped in to help solve it.
This article was originally published on 5 November, and updated on the 19 Nov to include events and reactions to the episode in question.