Compared to our friends in the animal kingdom, us humans have things pretty easy. After all, our food comes conveniently packaged and is readily available within miles of our cozy homes. Plus, we rarely have to come to blows when securing ourselves a reliable mate. In fact, most of us will face less peril in our entire lives than one species of Galápagos iguana encountered in the first few minutes of theirs.
The first episode of Planet Earth II, which aired in the United Kingdom on November 6, 2016, highlighted the plight of the baby marine iguanas. This follow-up series came a full decade after the original show and was welcomed by wildlife aficionados and Sir David Attenborough fans alike.
In fact, there has been much anticipation surrounding the new series. For starters, each episode of the documentary was shot in ultra high definition. The ambitious project also filmed in 40 countries across the globe and captured never-before-seen footage of animals in their natural environment.
“[The] epic scale and ambition of this series is second to none,” BBC executive producer Mike Gunton teased. “It will be a truly immersive experience, providing audiences with a unique perspective on the most extraordinary places and animals on our planet.” Suffice to say, Planet Earth II looked set to surpass the success of its Emmy-winning forerunner.
So, with that said, it is perhaps unsurprising that 9.2 million eager viewers settled down to watch the first episode. Most people expected a visual feast and gripping insights into the scale and beauty of our world. However, it’s probably fair to say that many weren’t expecting the whole show to be stolen by a group of newborn iguanas.
In fact, the shocking footage even led Attenborough to claim that he hadn’t seen anything like it in his 60-year career. The scene in question took place on Fernandina Island, the third biggest island in the Galápagos Islands. In his commentary, 90-year-old Attenborough explained how wildlife find the active volcanic island hard to live on due to its lack of foliage. But, he added, the island is home to “one of the strangest of reptiles: sea-going iguanas.”
Viewers learned that marine iguanas have been able to thrive on the island because they can feed on the abundance of plants on the seafloor. In fact, the animals can hold their breath for 30 minutes while they dive for food. Amazingly, there are 7,000 of the iguanas on Fernandina, and they are a fundamental part of the island’s ecosystem.
The documentary then turned its attention to the formative moments in a marine iguana’s life. And the gripping footage had people cowering on the edge of their seats. Some viewers even described it as the “the stuff of nightmares.”
The scene follows baby marine iguanas as they hatch from their eggs and emerge from the sand for the very first time. “They must join the adults at the edge of the sea, but the journey will be a dangerous one,” Attenborough warned in his narration. Then, without warning, a solitary snake follows one tiny iguana as it makes its way across the sand.
All at once, though, a whole clan of hungry serpents joins the single snake. But what began as a slow-paced stalk soon descends into a full-on chase as the tiny iguana and its kin race to get off the lunch menu. Fortunately, despite the speedy snakes being incredibly fast, some babies are able to outrun their predators.
Ultimately, however, some of the snakes catch a meal. And, as all the iguana’s hatch together in the month of June, any snake that missed its food just has to wait a little bit longer for another chance. “This is the best feeding opportunity they will get all year,” Attenborough explained.
Gruesomely, the extraordinary footage shows the snakes ambushing their prey in the rocks and then squeezing the life from their tiny bodies. It’s clear that the other hatchlings emerging from the sand are soon fully aware of the hazardous journey they face. One iguana, for instance, makes a run for it as a group of snakes devours its kin. Thankfully, the little hatchling makes it to safety.
In the heart-stopping footage, however, the next iguana is glued to the spot as snakes sniff around nearby. “A snake’s eyes aren’t very good but they can detect movement. So, if the hatchling keeps its nerve, it may just avoid detection,” Attenborough revealed. However, one sneaky snake spots the iguana and gets tantalizingly close its tail.
The baby sprints for its life toward the shore, but dozens of snakes follow in hot pursuit. Soon, then, the gang of snakes have the iguana surrounded and in their deadly grip. But, just as the snakes start to constrict in unison, the iguana miraculously manages to escape.
The dramatic chase resumes. The iguana scurries up the rocks to the nearby beach, and snake after snake hurls themselves at it, snapping their fangs as they go. On more than one occasion, it appears that the lizard’s luck is up. However, it leaps from surface to surface until it finally reaches the safety of the open beach. Attenborough described the feat as “a near miraculous escape.”
And the presenter wasn’t the only one that the scene impressed and horrified in equal measure. On reddit, many hailed the scene as the “greatest TV moment ever.” Meanwhile, another viewer added, “The snakes coming out of the rocks was like something straight out of a horror movie.”
British TV critic Gerard O’Donovan agreed. “This was thrillingly, and with no exaggeration, the stuff of nightmares,” he said. “Rarely has any real-life footage made the heart thump so hard in my chest as during this sublimely edited five-minute sequence – which may prompt many an anxiety dream in years to come.”
Even the episode’s producer, Elizabeth White, said her heart was in her mouth during the incredible scenes. “It’s like something from a horror film,” she said. “I don’t have a phobia of snakes, but I spent half the shoot with my hands in front of my eyes, willing the poor hatchlings to escape. Thankfully some did make it to the sea.”
Moreover, an electrifying Hans Zimmer score made the original footage even more thrilling. The editors had also cut the sequence like a Hollywood blockbuster, really amping up the drama. Unsurprisingly, then, it has since been widely agreed that the result was utterly gripping from start to finish.
The exhilarating scene just goes to show why many consider Sir David Attenborough a legend. Through his excellent shows, the broadcaster allows us to explore the wonder of our world and helps us understand more about Earth and its inhabitants. Hopefully, Attenborough’s legacy will also help preserve the planet for generations to come.