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Attenborough really does have a supernatural touch: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews Planet Earth III


Green turtles can live for up to 90 years. And wherever they swim in the world, when a turtle bumps into an old friend, one remarks to the other: ‘Blimey! That David Attenborough‘s been around a long time.’

Indisputably the greatest broadcaster in television history and arguably the most influential teacher who has ever lived, Sir David first showed us green turtles on his Zoo Quest adventures, at Raine Island in 1957.

More than 65 years later, his magnificent Planet Earth III (BBC1) took us back to this remote outpost, around 75 miles off the Australian coast, to revisit the turtles.

They beach here in their tens of thousands every year to lay eggs. The sight of hatchlings struggling out of their nests and tottering towards the water’s edge never ceases to move us, a vivid symbol of how vulnerable wild creatures are. To hear Sir David narrating as the cameras returned was extraordinary. No one else alive has such a perspective on this phenomenon.

Sir David Attenborough is indisputably the greatest broadcaster in television history and arguably the most influential teacher who has ever lived, writes CHRISTOPHER STEVENS

Sir David Attenborough is indisputably the greatest broadcaster in television history and arguably the most influential teacher who has ever lived, writes CHRISTOPHER STEVENS

In Planet Earth III Sir David returns to Raine Island, where he first showed us green turtles on his Zoo Quest adventures back in 1957

In Planet Earth III Sir David returns to Raine Island, where he first showed us green turtles on his Zoo Quest adventures back in 1957

But Zoo Quest didn’t tell the whole story – and neither did Planet Earth III. Sir David wasn’t doing face-to-face interviews before this eight-part series began airing but I sent him a note, asking about Raine Island.

He replied that the first visit happened by chance, when ‘a chap in the pub who had a boat’ in Oz offered to take him and the film crew. The trip took ten days, and a shocking sight awaited them.

‘There were dead turtles all over the place. Convicts in the 19th century had built a watchtower and dug stone from the middle of the island, so the island was saucer-shaped.

Turtles were coming up and, having laid their eggs, were going back downhill to what they thought was the sea, except that it was actually the middle of the island. So the place was absolutely littered with corpses of turtles. It was the most depressing thing I’d ever seen.’

Too upsetting for prim TV audiences in the 1950s, without doubt. Thankfully, conservation workers have reshaped the island, shifting thousands of tons of sand, and the turtles are thriving – though rising sea levels are a real threat.

For Sir David, now 97, to have the cameras go back was one of the show’s highlights. ‘I was fascinated to see it all again,’ he said.

Every moment of this opening episode was fascinating. The high-definition photography is more explosively beautiful than ever, and drones give us images we’ve never imagined, such as the spectacle of Cape fur seals harrying a great white shark.

They lunged at it, mobbing like crows chasing a buzzard. Underwater photography alone could not show this, though a pair of divers did get into the water.

Sir David revealed that his first trip to Raine Island was a depressing one, when it was littered with the corpses of dead turtles who were confused into thinking the middle of the saucer-shaped island was the sea

Sir David revealed that his first trip to Raine Island was a depressing one, when it was littered with the corpses of dead turtles who were confused into thinking the middle of the saucer-shaped island was the sea

The high-definition photography is more explosively beautiful than ever, and drones give us images we¿ve never imagined, such as the spectacle of Cape fur seals harrying a great white shark

The high-definition photography is more explosively beautiful than ever, and drones give us images we’ve never imagined, such as the spectacle of Cape fur seals harrying a great white shark

A family of ostriches leave their nest in the heart of the Namib desert, after waiting over 40 days for their eggs to hatch

A family of ostriches leave their nest in the heart of the Namib desert, after waiting over 40 days for their eggs to hatch

They stayed close to the seabed and filmed back-to-back – the fur seals might get away with being cocky, but it’s not wise to push your luck with a great white.

It’s impossible to pinpoint any Attenborough series from the past seven decades as ‘the best’.

But Planet Earth III can certainly claim to be the most visually stunning. The flamingos on the Yucatan salt flats, the Namibian desert lions, the archer fish and the pregnant right whale: all were amazing to see.

Pictures of a whale nursing a newborn calf were especially affecting, since it is only a few decades since the extinction of these creatures seemed inevitable.

When Sir David made his Life On Earth series in the 1970s, the killing of whales was unrestrained. Before the 1986 whaling moratorium, fleets were slaughtering them as fast as they could find them. The Soviet Union’s intention, as revealed in a BBC4 documentary earlier this year, was to wipe out whales so that the ‘capitalist West’ could not profit from them. It was ecological insanity.

Right whales got their name because, slow-moving and heavy, they were the ‘right whales’ to hunt. Watching the mother nuzzle her 16ft calf, who needs 44 gallons of milk a day, came like a reprieve from disaster.

It’s remarkable to learn the whales choose this spot as a nursery, partly because the sound of the waves on the shore will muffle their mumbles and prevent killer whales from discovering them.

Sir David never explained in his series why sea angels glow in the dark when hungry if they are unable to see

Sir David never explained in his series why sea angels glow in the dark when hungry if they are unable to see

An Arctic wolf on Ellesmere Island in Canada. Though he would scoff at the notion, Sir David's touch has become almost supernatural

An Arctic wolf on Ellesmere Island in Canada. Though he would scoff at the notion, Sir David’s touch has become almost supernatural

At the opposite end of the scale, the blind sea butterflies and their equally sightless predators, the sea angels, hunting them in the White Sea off Russia’s north-west coast, were eerily beautiful.

Sir David didn’t explain why, if they can’t see, the angels glow in the dark when they are hungry.

The sight of them digesting their prey in their translucent stomach sacs was gruesome but entrancing. They looked like escapees from a Harry Potter book.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see previews and, as the Mail’s Weekend magazine revealed in a superb spread earlier this month, there are some incomparable stories to come. Among my favourites are the two-ton rhino who strolls through a Nepalese town to a grazing patch, while tuktuks drive around him. Then there are long-tailed macaques at a Balinese temple, robbing tourists and holding their phones to ransom.

All this is narrated in the reassuring Attenborough style, always erudite but never pompous, and with that edge of mischievous humour. Though he’d scoff at the notion, his touch has become almost supernatural.

Mike Gunton, series executive producer, told me Sir David chose to film his introduction in the grounds of Down House in Kent, once the home of Charles Darwin.

‘The weather had been absolutely ghastly for weeks, pouring with rain, which wouldn’t look good. But of course, David being David, on the one day we were booked to film, the sun shone and it was beautiful.’ The natural world is so indebted to Attenborough, even the weather obeys him.



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