‘It was only us and the penguins’: Why a BBC crew broke a wildlife filmmaking taboo

When the second episode of David Attenborough's Dynasties aired in the UK last November, one dramatic moment caused considerable consternation.

The Emperor penguin colony in Antarctica’s Atka Bay.Credit:Stefan Christmann

"Film crews have to capture events as they unfold, whatever their feelings" narrated Attenborough over images of frozen chicks and mothers forced to abandon their offspring in their sole shot at survival. "But [the team] realise they may be able to save some of these birds simply by digging a few steps in the ice." Within minutes, a trail of penguins shuffled up the constructed path, out of the hellish ravine towards safety.

The drastic action broke an understood rule among wildlife filmmakers, and one long-espoused by Attenborough, that they aren't to interfere as nature takes its course. But while news headlines debated the crew's intervention, viewers and filmmaking peers praised the compassionate act.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction," says Lawson, over the phone from Bristol during a rare sojourn home. A former game ranger in South Africa who spent two years planning the Dynasties shoot followed by 11 months in Atka Bay gathering footage for the 50-minute episode, Lawson says his crew remains confident they made the right decision.

A 4-week-old Emperor penguin chick. Credit:BBC

"Usually in a situation like that, the demise of one animal would directly benefit another; they have their predator-prey relationship. But what was very unique about this situation is that there weren't any other species around that would directly benefit from these penguins dying in that gully. It was only us and the Emperor penguins; no other species are down there in the winter at all."

Lawson's crew deliberated for days after first seeing the penguins stuck in the gully, forced back to their bunker – the German research centre, Neumayer Station – by a blizzard with winds exceeding 100km/h and temperatures down near minus 62 C once wind-chill was factored in.

"It was difficult," Lawson recalls. "Having worked within wildlife for the best part of 17 years, it's difficult when you're in a situation where you see another animal that is suffering – and nine times out of ten you let nature take its course because, by extension, one animal's demise is usually another animal's benefit.

"But when we got back down after the big storm, the situation had got worse; there were less mothers in the gully but more dead chicks. At that point, the three of us unanimously agreed we were just going to see if a very simple act of digging some steps would have any benefit whatsoever. And we were just ecstatic when the mothers located the ramp and one by one slowly shuffled out and made their way back to the colony. There was no chance they were going to survive down there, and definitely not with their chicks – we just improved their chances by giving them an option."

Surprisingly, the team's taboo action was unanimously backed by viewers. Rather than lingering thinkpieces on nature doc ethics, the segment sparked a wave of supportive quips online. "Some payback for the damage humanity is doing to the natural world," one viewer commented; "Finally: proof humans don't suck all the time," added another.

Lawson says he's grateful about the response. "I think that drama gave us an incredibly privileged view of what these animals go through on a day-to-day basis, whether we're there or not. For audiences to recognise an element of empathy in that, and connect with these characters in a way they maybe wouldn't have expected, it was great to hear."

David Attenborough's Dynasties airs Saturday 7pm on Nine.

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