Watching baby penguins freeze to death was too much for the documentary crew to take.
As CBS News reports, a BBC documentary crew was in Antarctica filming a group of Emperor penguins for the show “Dynasties,” when a group of moms and chicks were cut off from the rest of the penguin colony.
The penguin moms and babies were trapped in an icy ravine as a storm hit. Overnight, the temperature dropped to 76 degrees below zero. Several of the chicks died from the cold. Others were being left behind as the mothers escaped up a steep incline that the young penguins couldn’t climb.
The unwritten rule for nature documentarians is that you’re only there to observe — not to intervene. But the heartbreaking sight of the trapped penguins moved the crew to break that rule. They decided to carve a stepped ramp into the side of the ravine so the penguins would be able to climb out.
Director Will Lawson told CBS:
“We opted to intervene passively. Once we’d dug that little ramp, which took very little time, we left it to the birds. We were elated when they decided to use it.”
According to Country Living, the crew was unanimous in deciding to break the no-interventing rule. Lawson added:
“What was unique with this was that the only other animal there was us -— nothing else would directly benefit from this. I’m sure some people will have an opinion in the other direction but in my heart of hearts I think we made the right decision.”
Sir David Attenborough, the creator of “Dynasties,” has previously defended the rule, explaining that he once refused to help a dying elephant calf because it would have prolonged the death and distorted the truth. In this case, however, Attenborough approved of the decision to help the trapped penguins. In the episode, he said:
“It’s very rare for the film crew to intervene. But they realize that they might be able to save at least some of these birds, simply by digging a few steps in the ice.”
While those involved treated the intervention as an unusual and potentially controversial step, fans of the show had no such doubts. On Twitter, the crew’s actions were applauded as commenters discussed how moving the rescue was.
So glad the crew decided to act and save the penguins in the ravine. There's always the "don't interfere with nature" argument, but humanity does plenty to destroy it, so we can also give a helping hand if opportunity presents. #Dynasties
— Matthew Carter (@MatthewCarterIO) November 18, 2018
I see no problem in the documentary makers stepping in to help a few penguins survive. When you consider the harm humans do, redressing the balance sometimes seems only fair #Dynasties
— TOM POOLE (@TOMPOOLE2) November 19, 2018
— Becki Hall (@bex1225) November 18, 2018
I’m so glad to hear this. Have to be honest I find it hard watching nature programmes sometimes knowing someone is watching but not helping (I’m a vet)!
— MT (@thepollycat) November 19, 2018
However, there were those who believed the crew should not have broken the rule to save the penguin chicks.
They can't my friend. You can't intervene with Nature. What they did clearing out that ravine was unprecedented. If you interfere … It has a domino effect. It's the Natural World and it has to be that way. Each species. Each creature has to run its natural course. Unfortunately
— Sully (@Sulsters_inc) November 19, 2018
In an interview with BBC News, “Dynasties” producer Mike Gunton explained that most of the time, the no-intervention rule is there to keep filmmakers from changing nature’s path and interfering with the dynamics of the animal groups. This situation, however, had a number of unique factors that made it acceptable to get involved:
“There were no animals going to suffer by intervening. It wasn’t dangerous. You weren’t touching the animals and it was just felt by doing this … they had the opportunity to not have to keep slipping down the slope.”