A snake slithers out of the rocks in Galapagos Island. A baby iguana, which has to cross the snake, stands still. “A snake’s eyes aren’t very good. But they can detect movement,” Sir David Attenborough’s commentary informs us. The snake is too close. The hatchling does well to remain still. But once the snake comes in contact with its tail, the iguana takes off.
Sensing violent movement, several snakes slither out of the rocks. Three of them manage to catch and try to constrict the iguana. Just when you think it is all over for the iguana, it slips away, sprints, jumps, evades a snake-bite by a few centimetres and gets to safety. Just a few days after birth, it escapes death.
There is a two-minute-eleven-second clip of this on YouTube. Watch it, if you have not already. It puts the most thrilling chases in Hollywood to shame. No wonder it won BBC’s Planet Earth II a BAFTA Must See Moment of the Year award in 2017.
Elizabeth White was one of the few people who witnessed this adrenaline-pumping wildlife drama live. She was one of the producers of the acclaimed docuseries. Asked if she rewatches the sequence occasionally, she replies in jest, “Yes. I am so glad I am not a baby iguana.”
The BBC filmmaker and researcher was also involved in Frozen Planet, another BBC docuseries, which won four Emmy awards. She discusses that and more over a call from her home in the UK, which is in the midst of another lockdown.
Are there moments like the iguana-snake chase in Frozen Planet?
Yes. There are. I can, however, recall the opening sequence of the show right now.
It’s an incredible story about killer whales. They cooperate together to wash seals from ice flows. So, a family of killer whales travels all the way to Antarctica and there is one particular area in Antarctica where these animals hunt. They join forces as a family, and create these incredible waves to wash the seal into the water and get their prey.
That is one of the most amazing behaviours I have witnessed. But there are some fun stories as well.
My favourite one is of the Adélie penguins, which steal stones from each other. They have to make their nests using stones. And, when their backs are turned, other penguins steal stones from their nests.
What were the difficulties you faced while filming in frigid conditions?
Sometimes, the temperature was down to minus 40 degrees. You get icicles on your eyelashes. Your fingers and toes get cold. It is difficult to manage the equipment, too. Plastic cables can snap, cameras can break. We also used a helicopter, which struggles at low temperatures.
We had quite a lot of underwater shoots in this weather. Another big challenge was the remoteness. A lot of the shoots required travelling several days to some of these locations on small boats. We encountered very big waves while getting there.
We were also away from home for months at a time. So, these were the challenges. You need resilience for this job. But you always reflect on the fact it’s such a privilege to go to these places, and to spend time with such amazing animals.
How long did it take to film the seven-episode series?
It took about four-and-a-half years in total in Antarctica and the Arctic. It starts with an introductory film about the polar regions. And then the series follow as a seasonal story.
We follow the animals in spring, summer, autumn and finally, winter. We have got a film all about indigenous people of these places.
The final film is about the changing climate, and the impact that it has on the wildlife on the people.
The response towards climate change is still lukewarm. Do you make certain choices as a filmmaker to make a particular narrative more impactful?
We always try to show and tell things as they are. In Frozen Planet, the last episode is about climate change. We interviewed people who live there and people who have studied sea ice for over 40 years. So, there is no need to try and sensationalise the factual elements of it. But I think we went for an honest viewpoint to leave the viewers with a clear idea that these things are definitely changing.
We also went back to some of the glaciers that explorer Ernest Shackleton would have seen when he first touched Antarctica 100 years ago.
He took an amazing photographer with him called Frank Hurley, who captured the glaciers. And, when you place these old pictures on the modern pieces of video, the changes are very dramatic.
So, how do you react to climate change deniers?
Oh, it’s always difficult and a bit frustrating. The scientific consensus is that these places are definitely changing due to the climate. And, anyone who’s denying it is reading news that isn’t factual. But all you can do is to continue to educate people. We’ve got enough photographs from satellite imagery. We’ve got the scientific records. So, we continue to tell stories with these and hope people wake up and take it seriously.
Frozen Planet airs on January 21, 9 pm on Sony BBC Earth