Wildlife experiences inspired by the BBC's Planet Earth II
The BBC's Planet Earth II has us gripped. In the series, David Attenborough reflects on ‘how easy it is for us to lose our connection to the natural world’.
While we can’t claim that you can see everything that was captured on Planet Earth II, a lot of seminal wildlife experiences are entirely within your reach. Recalling the footage that most grabbed them, our specialists relive their own experiences — from sightings of jaguars in Brazil to grizzly bears in Canada — and explain how you can do the same.
As seen in Islands: marine iguana outpacing racer snakes
By Galapagos specialist Holly
Marine iguanas, Galapagos Islands
Impossibly outnumbered, a hatchling marine iguana somehow manages to outmanoeuvre the amassed racer snakes lying in wait. Once the newborn starts to run, it’s a tense persuit to the safety of the black volcanic rock plateau above the beach. In a final attempt to close in on its prey, the last chasing snake flings itself full body at the iguana. The escape is as startling as it is improbable.
Iguanas nest in the Galapagos from January to March, when the sand is at its warmest. The hatching site featured on Planet Earth II is northerly Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island, a thin taper of sand locked between the South Pacific and a shelf of solidified lava flow — easy hunting ground for the predatory snakes.
One of our local guides was on the beach as the BBC filmed. It was the first time he’d witnessed the iguanas’ dash in 14 years of guiding. While it’s a very rare spectacle to catch, marine iguanas are prolific across the Galapagos.
They bask in the sun in massive numbers, blending into their surroundings so effectively that you literally stumble upon them. ‘Watch your feet’, my guide yelled repeatedly as he led me through one group (the iguanas won’t move for you). Every so often you’ll hear a spitting sound as an iguana ‘sneezes’ fine jets of salt out through its nostrils — a way of regulating the seawater taken in when swimming.
I also encountered iguanas while snorkeling in the central islands. As the single marine lizard species, they swim down to the seabed to nibble on algae, and I watched as they came to feed. With motionless legs, they use their tail as a rudder and wiggle their hips to propel themselves, gliding quite serenely through the water.
As seen in Deserts: Namibia’s dune-dwelling creatures
By Namibia specialist Mike
Namaqua chameleon, Namibia
If you watched this episode, you’ll know that the arid burnt-orange sands of Namibia may seem alien and lifeless, but actually support a wealth of wildlife. When I first visited the country as an already seasoned safari-goer, I expected to see elephant, lion, cheetah and springbok. But what made the trip special were the unexpected encounters with smaller wildlife species I’d never seen or considered before.
One of the most captivating clips of the episode was of darkling beetles scaling some of the world’s highest dunes in the Namib Desert. Once at the top, they collect water droplets from the morning fog that rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean — their only source of water. Opportunistic Namaqua chameleons use their lengthy tongues to pluck the beetles from the sand, gaining a drink and a snack in one swift mouthful.
In the dunes just outside the coastal city of Swakopmund, you can join a Living Desert tour with an enthusiastic guide who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the insects, spiders and reptiles that live in and around the dunes. Heading out in the early morning, you may see darkling beetles patiently collecting water, chameleons catching them for breakfast, spiders that escape their enemies by cartwheeling down the dunes and geckos that hop from one foot to the other as the sand heats up.
Having these smaller creatures pointed out to me and learning about their ingenious methods of survival soon allowed me to see the desert in a whole new light. The thrill of spotting a bug or a lizard became almost as exhilarating as spying a lion out in the bush.
As seen in Grasslands: rhinos in Kaziranga National Park
By India specialist Graham
Great one-horned rhino, Kaziranga National Park, India
I was keen to see more footage of northeast India’s Kaziranga National Park during the Planet Earth II Grasslands episode. After watching the park’s rhinos, tigers and elephants enthusiastically destroying the camera traps on Planet Earth II Diaries, I can understand why there wasn’t more.
You don’t have to be part of a film crew to see Kaziranga’s wildlife. I stayed in a traditional stilted bungalow at Diphlu River Lodge on the outskirts of the park. In my room was a thick booklet listing the startling amount of species I might encounter — and a pen to tick off my sightings.
Wrapped in a blanket, I joined my guide and naturalist for a dawn jeep safari. As the grasses are high enough to hide an elephant, we drove adjacent to the river, a tributary of the sacred Brahmaputra. I usually find that patience is needed on a safari, but almost immediately we pulled over. A pile of glistening brown otters writhed on the waterside in front of us. We were about to move on when an Indian turtle shuffled out of the water nearby.
Peering out of the jeep, I focused my binoculars on the opposite riverbank. My guide was adamant he’d heard something else. I waited. The orange coat of a Bengal tiger appeared from nowhere. She’d been walking between the grasses before breaking cover to drink from the river.
As we drove onwards, it struck me that I hadn’t seen Kaziranga’s most famous resident, the great one-horned rhino. They’re not subtle creatures, and we soon began to spot them powering through the grasses as the day warmed up. Scattered across the park, I soon lost count of how many we saw.
You have the best chance of a successful safari if you travel to Kaziranga in February through to early April, when the animals come out of the dry jungle to drink.
As seen in Jungles: jaguars stalking prey in Brazil
By Brazil specialist Fiona
Jaguar, Pantanal wetlands, Brazil
For me a muscular male jaguar clamping its jaw around the throat of a caiman was the most memorable part of Planet Earth II’s Jungles episode. While I’ve seen jaguars in the wild, I’ve never glimpsed a hunt.
The BBC’s footage was shot in the Amazon, but its dense forest provides such good cover for jaguars that they’re incredibly difficult to spot. The open marshes of Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, is a good alternative.
I stayed at Hotel Porto Jofre, in the northern Pantanal. It’s an old fisherman’s hut that has been converted into a basic but comfortable hotel. Heading out on morning and afternoon boat safaris along the Cuiabá River, my guides panned the riverbanks looking for signs of movement between the pockets of bush.
We didn’t need to look too hard. Rounding a corner, we spotted a jaguar snoozing on the water’s edge. A capybara sat nonchalantly nearby. I’ve never managed to put my finger on it, but there’s something comical about seeing these sheep-sized guinea pigs.
Jaguar sightings at Porto Jofre are almost guaranteed, especially if you travel from June to September. This does mean the river can become busy with boats. A quieter option is Caiman Ecological Refuge in the southern Pantanal. A private reserve, it’s still a working cattle farm.
Running its own research unit, the refuge supports a healthy jaguar population. Safaris here cross the cerradõ (wooded savannah) by jeep. I was woken by a knocking at my door at 5:30am one morning: a jaguar had been sighted. Throwing on some clothes, I raced out of the door and into a waiting jeep. Just as we were leaving the lodge, a jaguar emerged from underneath a little bridge just in front of us.
As seen in Cities: Singapore‘ s Gardens by the Bay
By Southeast Asia specialist Rob
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
The last episode of Planet Earth focused on the newest habitat on the planet, the urban environment. Whilst watching wildlife attempt to survive in brightly-lit concrete jungles was harrowing at times (the newly hatched turtles spring to mind), the city of Singapore offered a glimpse of a future where our cities might be designed to welcome and nurture wildlife.
A sweeping panoramic shot introduces Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, a series of shell-shaped greenhouses and metal Supertrees straight out of a sci-fi novel. It’s a botanical garden for the 21st century, with hi-tech biodomes replicating dry desert and rainforest environments and eco-filters to clean the surrounding waterways.
The view from afar may look impressive, but I’d argue it’s even more interesting close up. I spent the afternoon wandering between the dry heat of the Flower Dome, the humid Cloudforest Dome — complete with 30 m (98 ft) high waterfall — and the balmy outdoor gardens. It’s like exploring a horticultural honeycomb, with habitats from all over the world nestled in their own little section.
The grove of futuristic Supertrees dominates the garden, with the tallest tree reaching 50 m (164 ft). You can walk underneath their wide canopies, fitted with photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy, and investigate their vertically planted trunks which are home to more than 200 species of orchids, ferns and flowering vines. The OCBC Skyway connects two of the trees with views right across to the South China Sea.
Still in their infancy, the gardens are slowly becoming a haven for wildlife. The rare Daurian redstart has started to visit on its migratory route south, whilst many local bird species have moved in, including the pick-necked green pigeon and Asian glossy starling. Insect life is flourishing with butterflies and dragonflies a common sight. A pair of otters have been spotted — although it’s a little too early to judge whether they’ve become permanent residents.
As seen in Islands: surprising penguin behaviour
By Latin America specialist Lizzie
King penguins, South Georgia
You’ll remember the footage of the chinstrap penguins living on the uninhabited island of Zavodovski, an active volcano in the South Atlantic. In their quest to find food for their young, the penguins risk their lives leaping off the island’s steep cliffs into a maelstrom of booming, battering waves.
Zavodovski is closed to visitors — but nothing’s stopping you heading to South Georgia, a UK territory 349 km (217 miles) to the northwest. It seems equally inhospitable, an island with a spine of snow-covered serrated peaks cut through with ice, with the occasional splash of green tussock grass. But here, against a backdrop of mountains and glaciers streaked with rocky moraine, I saw vast colonies of king penguins. They're one of the tallest and most photogenic species, with their silvery coats and distinctive amber-gold throat plumage.
Thankfully, none of the penguins were performing the death-defying feats we saw on Zavodovski. I watched them waddling up out of the water onto shingle beaches and serenely make their way inland (a good 15 minute walk even for humans) to their chicks. As on Zavodovski, it’s safer to raise young far from the coast. On valleys and slopes clear of snow and ice, you’ll see their chicks — fat, fluffy balls covered in insulating brown down, anxiously awaiting the next meal.
The chicks are often curious: while some follow a parent around, others will wander right up to where you’re standing. The Antarctic Treaty recommends you keep 5 m (16 ft) away from wildlife, but that didn’t hinder one trio of boisterous chicks, who toddled over to inspect me.
You’ll also see adults forming lines, sometimes in chilly streams, cooling off as the water trickles over their leathery feet. Some have their necks tucked under their flippers, having a snooze. It always amused me — it looked like they were politely queuing for a bus.