Last night’s TV – Nature’s Great Events: The Great Feast

nature's great events

What a shame that last night’s Nature’s Great Events was the last in the current series; I could’ve easily watched for hour upon hour as the outstanding and remarkable camera work took us on a journey through Alaska’s hostile waters, and all narrated by the wonderfully somnambulistic vocal tones of David Attenborough.

Not that his voice puts me to sleep, but it is rather like auditory valium. Listening to him is just so relaxing, it’s not hard to drift away into stress free oblivion while viewing stunning scenery, amazing animal life and hearing David explain it all in his calm and soothing voice… until something gets attacked, eaten, shredded and generally devoured that is.

We heard in last night’s show that an explosion of plant life along the coastal waters of Alaska and British Columbia draws in a vast array of wildlife who feed on billions of herring. There are humpback whales that migrate 3,000 miles from Hawaii, Steller sea lions, dolphins and killer whales, and they’re all racing against time to make the most of the abundant fish.

The summer sun sparks the growth of phytoplankton – microscopic floating plants – which can bloom in such vast numbers that they eclipse even the Amazon rainforest in sheer abundance of plant life. Remarkably, it’s these minute plants that are the basis of all life here.

But both whales and sea lions have obstacles to overcome before they can enjoy their feast; during their three-month voyage from Hawaii, the humpbacks lose a third of their bodyweight… maybe they should patent it as a new, revolutionary weightloss technique.

There were several gut wrenching scenes last night though and in one, a mother sea lion lost her pup in a violent summer storm, while another dramatic sequence showed a group of killer whales working together to kill a huge male sea lion.

Filmed from the surface, underwater and – for the first time apparently – from the air, the final episode revealed how these giant hunters can catch a tonne of fish every day, and in Swallowed By A Whale – the 10-minute diary section at the end of the programme – cameramen Shane Moore and David Reichert were filming bait balls when a 30-tonne whale roared past, within feet of them, swallowing the entire bait ball… but fortunately, not Shane and David!

As I said, the scenery was as stunning as the creatures themselves, and the thing is with anything David Attenborough narrates, you learn facts almost by default and unconsciously. For instance, it’s now implanted firmly in my grey matter that the calves of humpbacked whales require around 400 litres of their mother’s milk to survive… that’s a very lot of milk!

Another interesting fact that I took in without noticing I was learning something is that the plankton that form in such great proliferation are responsible for providing us with half of our oxygen supply. Before this, I’d pretty much attributed that contribution to trees only, but evidently I was wrong. But to be honest, I’m don’t profess to be a naturalist or even have that great a general knowledge of such things, which is one of the reasons why I so love David Attenborough shows. As I said, one takes in knowledge without realising you’re being taught, such is his non-patronising method of narration.

nature's great events seals

Some of my favourite scenes last night were of the sealions who are alternately comedic in their inelegance on land then sleek and graceful when in the water. However, it was hideous watching the massive killer whales battering to death a large sealion, but such is the nature of nature as I’ve mentioned before in reviews of similar programmes; it’s just hard to watch sometimes. It was a bit like watching Bambi all over again and I stopped giving myself that pain many years ago. I had to; I’d have been in therapy for years otherwise.

David described the killing of the large male seal in mellifluous, sympathetic tones, giving us a hint of what was to come by saying, “The richest seas are the most treacherous” and then – as the poor seal met his end – he added, “Blow by blow, they wear him down.”

The seals seem to have a pretty tough time of it and another hard-to-watch scene was the one I mentioned earlier when we saw a mother seal trying to move her dead pup out of stormy waters – in which it had drowned – while issuing what can only be described as howls of utter grief that touched a very human nerve… one couldn’t help feeling a motherly bond of horror at the death of an infant, even a seal’s, and I have to admit I welled up as the mother wrapped herself around her dead pup as if cradling it for the last time. Oh lordy… I’ve set myself off again!

However, by far the greatest number of victims food chain-wise were the unfortunate herring, but they aren’t as cute as the seals so I couldn’t even summon up a pseudo-snivel for their fate.

Everything but everything preys on them; from murres birds, seals, whales and just about anything else with a mouth and a taste for fresh fish. Part of the stunning camera work was seeing shoals of herring releasing their sperm and eggs in what David rather grossly but correctly described as, “vast milky clouds” which left the seabed coated with approximately 800 billion eggs that turned hundreds of miles of the coastline completely white. Just as an aside, I wonder which researcher got the job of counting? And imagine losing your place at around 698 billion and having to start all over again 🙂

We later saw yet more stunning footage of a whole gang of humpback whales “bubble net fishing” which is an astonishing feat of literally ensnaring fish in the bubbles the whales issue forth from their blow holes, but it seems not all whales have caught on to this trick and only around a hundred of them have learned to fish using bubble netting. Amazing.

nature's great events whales

What the whales do seem to be universally good at though is floating happily around watching and waiting while seabirds herded – for want of a better word – thousands of fish into a “bait ball” then just when they were good and ready to dive in for them, up would pop the patient whale and the “ball” of fish were staring at the whale’s insides within seconds, leaving the birds still hungry and looking quite stunned by the sudden disappearance of their lunch.

Not that the birds didn’t do alright most of the time – they managed to dive bomb millions of herring who didn’t even put up a fight. Mind you, if that thing about fish not being able to remember anything for more than three seconds is right, it’d be a bit pointless for evolution tutors to teach them better survival skills… it’d be like remedial class for aquatic ADHD sufferers who’ve all got Alzheimer’s as well.

So, in conclusion, I’ll say again, it’s such a shame this was the last in the series… I’m now going to have to hunt around Discovery and Animal Planet for shows narrated by David for where he is, stunning camera work and fascinating stories of life of all kinds will surely follow, and I need to hear his calming tones at least once a week and I could do with learning more stuff without being aware that I’m learning more stuff…

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.