Netflix Producer on Filming Walruses Falling to Their Deaths for Our Planet: 'It Was Traumatic'
Sophie Lanfear, who produced the episode of Our Planet that featured the mass walrus death, hopes the scene moves viewers to take the effects of climate change seriously
Netflix recently released Our Planet, a beautifully-shot, eight-part nature documentary series on the manmade threats that are affecting the Earth and all the beautiful, bizarre and brave creatures that live here.
The series, narrated by David Attenborough, has many stand out moments, but one in particular is getting the attention of animal lovers around the world.
In the second episode of the series, “Frozen Worlds,” Our Planet explores the effects climate change, specifically melting sea ice, is having on the arctic’s wildlife.
“The arctic is now warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on the planet,” Sophie Lanfear, the producer and director of the “Frozen Worlds” episode of Our Planet told PEOPLE.
Having spent her teenage years in northern Norway, Lanfear was excited to capture the arctic — an area close to her heart. In her episode, Lanfear wanted to explore some of the unusual animal behaviors that have arisen in the arctic over the past few years.
One of the changes that interested her was the increasing number of walruses “hauling out” on the rocky cliffs around Russia. Each year, Lanfear describes, thousands of walruses spend their summer eating clams revealed by the thaw of warm weather. In the past, after tiring themselves from foraging, walruses would sit on the nearby sea ice to rest up until they were ready to eat again. Now that the sea ice has melted away due to climate change, walruses are forced to swim miles out of their way to find land where they can “haul out” and rest.
Unfortunately, the land nearest to their feeding grounds is treacherous, rocky cliffs.
After “two and a half years of research and logistics,” including priceless help from Russian biologist Anatoliy Kochnev, Lanfear and her crew found one of these haul out sites and figured out to best way to shoot this “mass spectacle.”
According to the producer, Kochnev’s 35 years of research in walrus haul outs shows that sites like the one shown in Our Planet “have been used much more frequently in recent years because of sea ice loss in much larger numbers,” Lanfear said.
During filming, Lanfear watched the large mammals flop there way up the steep rocks and climb higher than she ever expected the animals to go. Once the walruses reached a flat space about 80 meters up, they all stopped to rest.
“I didn’t think they would be capable of getting that high up. We watched them up there for several days, these walruses perched on these high cliffs, and teetering on the edge,” the producer said.
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It was when it was time for the animals to return to the sea that filming took a traumatic turn. The walruses now had to find their way back down the steep verges to the water.
“You’re rooting for them not to go over the edge and for them to go back down the way they came, and a few small groups did go back the way they came, and you are just celebrating,” Lanfear said of filming the animal exodus. “Sadly, the majority of the ones on the cliffs did not work that out.”
Very social animals, according to Lanfear, many of the walruses started to move once they heard other animals leaving.
“They are drawn to go,” she said. “They could hear them leaving, so they just stepped off the cliff.”
Lanfear and her crew watched countless walruses die this way, falling from the cliff after a misplaced step and tumbling over the rocks to land on the shore dead.
“We were surround by lots of dead walruses every day,” Lanfear said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been around that many dead bodies. It was traumatic.”
The producer hopes enduring this shoot, and sharing what is happening to arctic animals in the far corners of the world, will encourage people to make changes in their own lives to prevent more tragedies like this.
“We all need to pay attention and think about how we consume energy,” Lanfear said. “I would like people to think about their lives and the fossil fuels they use in their lives and be inspired to support renewable energies and to try and find solutions to this problem.”
This message of taking responsibility and making changes resonates through all of Our Planet‘s episodes. The series hopes to inspires viewers to tackle the big manmade challenges that are negatively affecting wildlife around the world.
While the scene of mass walrus death in “Frozen Worlds” may make it seem like Our Planet is all “doom and gloom,” Lanfear assures that it is not. The series also focuses on how small changes made by many humans can have a profound, positive affect on our planet.
The producer noted that since placing bans on commercial whaling worldwide, many whale population have started to increase in number for the first time in years.
To learn more about how you can make a change and help protect animals like these walruses, Our Planet has a website filled with useful resources.