One of the primary rules of wildlife photographers and filmmakers is to never interfere with scenes they’re capturing on camera, no matter how brutal they may be. However, a BBC wildlife firm crew deviated from that practice by helping penguins escape from a deadly situation.
The team was in Antarctica’s Atka Bay to shoot scenes for David Attenborough’s BBC series, Dynasties. One member of the crew, cameraman Lindsay McCrae, witnessed the lives of the Emperor penguins while they were filming. He observed them through their breeding season and watched as the chicks broke out of their eggs.
For nine weeks, McCrae saw how each egg would rest on the father’s feet, protecting them using the “brood pouch,” a warm layer of feathered skin. These intimate moments were among the most magical moments he had filmed in the location.
However, he worried about how they would all survive as the harshest weather of the year began to hit them. Within a month, the chicks that first arrived had doubled in weight and became too big for the brood pouches.
Wind speeds were expected to exceed 100 mph, which means the bigger baby penguins wouldn’t stand a chance. McCrae was extremely worried about the colony, but all he could do was wish them well before they packed up.
As forecast, the wind picked up and didn’t stop that night. The weather was brutal, and McCrae wished every day for it to cease, imagining the danger it would present to the penguins. They wouldn’t be able to see the enormous gullies—which had walls up to 60 ft high—that had opened up in the ice because of the zero visibility caused by blizzards. The penguins could easily tumble into them and die.
Finally, after under just two weeks, a break in the storm allowed the team to get back down to the penguins and see how they’re doing. With his director, Will, and assistant cameraman, Stefan, McCrae went out to survey the situation.
And as he had imagined, hundreds of bodies lay across the ice sheet. Helpless penguin chicks had frozen to death. Some lay on their backs, still alive, but unable to detach themselves from the ice. McCrae looked down into the depths of one huge gully and saw chicks trying to scramble out. The other adult penguins had no choice but to abandon their young.
He had spent so much time with the Emperor penguins that they felt like family to him, and he couldn’t bear seeing them so helpless. So, they discussed what they had seen and decided to do something unconventional: intervene with nature.
Armed with ropes and harnesses, they lowered themselves into the bottom of the gully and dug into the slope using big shovels to form a ramp. Thankfully, the penguins were smart enough to figure out what they were for, and they climbed all the way to the top one by on. The team felt incredibly relieved watching the birds return to their colony.
McCrae understood that what they did would seem controversial to many, but he saw the other side of it.
“The Emperors and their chicks hadn’t been pushed or chased into the gully by a predator, and their slow, lengthy deaths wouldn’t have immediately benefited any other life form,” he explained.
“Also, the help we had given them was indirect. By digging a shallow ramp, we’d given the penguins an option, a way out, but we had left the decision to them.”
When the film was finally broadcast, wildlife documentarians, viewers, and Sir David Attenborough himself supported their decision.
“It’s very rare for the film crew to intervene. But they realize that they might be able to save at least some of these birds, simply by digging a few steps in the ice,” he said.
As for us, we’re so glad they decided to intervene! After all, it’s more difficult to sit by and watch these animals suffer than take action and help them. This just proves that rules, sometimes, are clearly meant to be broken.
Watch the incredible documentary in the video below.