Netflix Took Us To Svalbard And We May Have Seen The End Of The World

By Chris Mandle
07 May 2019
Gentoo penguins taking a rest from fishing on an iceberg passing by in the Gerlache Straight Antarctic Peninsula
Credit: Sophie Lanfear - Netflix

Gentoo penguins taking a rest from fishing on an iceberg passing by in the Gerlache Straight Antarctic Peninsula

Svalbard is remote – more-polar-bears-than-people remote. Yet perfect for a Netflix documentary exploring the visceral doom facing the Earth. GQ meets the producers of Our Planet to know more about the desperate fight against climate change

We were approximately 40km north of the Middle of Nowhere when we locked eyes with the polar bear. This vast plain – in actuality an hour’s skidoo journey out of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard – could be described as a galaxy of almost-whites; sky the colour of eggshells, our breath the colour of ghosts. The ground, comprised of snow-covered, frozen-over rocks, was the exact shade of a spider’s web after rainfall; white-blue, almost luminous.

The ursus maritimus rose up from the ground about 300 metres away, where he had been completely camouflaged; his black nose and crinkled black eyes now practically iridescent against the bone-coloured terrain. This, we were told, as the long-limbed bear wandered away, across pack ice sitting in the shadow of a whopping glacier, was incredibly rare to see.

The Inuit call them the wanderers because polar bears do not stop moving. They walk and walk and walk across ice that has formed and frozen on top of the sea. Then they walk some more. They stop to rest, and when they lie down, they meld effortlessly into the world around them, invisible until they rise again. Within minutes he was 500 metres away, then 700 and, as the sharp winds whipped up, it became harder and harder to see the plodding shape at all.

“It’s one of the most special things about them,” says Alastair Fothergill, a documentary maker and one of the executive producers of Our Planet, Netflix’s six-part exploration of the natural world. “They’re one of the best animals on the planet [at hunting] but it makes them almost impossible to film.”

Fothergill, whose credits also include both Blue Planet and Planet Earth, spent 3,500 days directing this series. He remarks that for all the progress made in the documentary genre, nobody has ever filmed a full polar bear hunt due to their elusiveness. “You have moments of it, people have filmed failures but it’s never really been well filmed. It’s a difficult, difficult process.”

The team camps on a floe edge in Canada. Sea-ice is dangerous for a camp as the ice can break away at any time and polar bears walk along the ice-edge in search of food. The team risked it to maximise its time at the edge, while waiting for narwhals and beluga whales

The documentary, and David Attenborough’s narration, which is soothing but somehow urgent, is different from those you may have seen before. There is a greater focus here on how human involvement has wreaked destruction on the natural order of things, and is causing relentless chaos across the planet. It is also entertaining – animals doing the funniest things, and so on – but undercutting that is the dire threat facing our planet.

“In a 50-minute documentary, you can never tell the whole story,” Feathergill explains later. “There is so much you can do online to drive the conversation forward. We are expecting a billion people to watch the series. By 2020, and the next UN meeting, we hope the conversation about climate change and how we can protect the planet is front and centre.

“It would be nice if we could move the dial slightly in people’s understandings about biodiversity.”

Fothergill had been making documentaries for years – largely for the BBC, but also for National Geographic and Disney. “The time had come to try and do a series that, for the first time, dealt with the challenges that our planet is facing. At the same time, it had to be mass-oriented – it had to put lots of bums on seats. So it was very important that the balance between entertainment, education and environmental messaging was right.”

Therein lies the challenge: Netflix has elbowed into the documentary space, but rather than do it merely to entertain us, it wants to harness all those millions of pairs of eyes towards a greater good, and use the impact of this show to drive important conversations forward. The big question is whether it can succeed.

Save for the chainsaw-buzz of the snowmobile accelerating, it is perfectly silent here in Svalbard. There are no trees, or flora, during our excursion. The reindeer we see on our journey through the valleys are a stouter, shaggier variety, and often die out in the cold winters due to the lack of moss, which they chew to keep their stomach acids regulated. Desperate for something to eat, they will try eating the rocks frozen into the earth, causing their teeth to shatter and fall out, eventually resulting in them starving to death. It is brutal.

One of the most devastating moments in the show comes in episode two, “Frozen Worlds”, on the far northeastern coast of Russia, where a hundred thousand walrus have gathered on a single beach. Their natural home, the ice floes out at sea, have retreated north, leaving this as the best alternative for them. But their numbers are too vast. Out of desperation, some of the walrus begin climbing up the 80-metre cliffs to try and avoid the brutal stampedes. And, due to their poor eyesight and spatial awareness, many simply fall to their deaths, brains and bones smashed as they tumble down sharp rock faces. It is difficult to watch; unlike some of the natural tragedies in the world, this traumatic, distressing moment is directly due to the ice caps melting and many species being thrown into disarray. “Hundreds fall from heights they never should have scaled,” Attenborough says gravely.

Over 100,000 walrus along a small stretch of coast in Northern Russia. As sea-ice shrinks due to a warming Arctic ocean, walrus have no choice but to come to land in order to rest between feeding trips to the ocean floor in search of clams

“We knew it was happening but not at this scale,” explains Fothergill, back at his office. “The crew were in tears filming it. It’s a pretty graphic example of climate change.”

This kind of messaging seems only to have been possible now; Fothergill says that four or five years ago when he discussed more climate change-themed documentaries at the BBC, he was met with resistance.

We have reached a point, and some may argue that we’ve reached it far too late, where activism around climate change has become impossible to avoid. Socio-political group Extinction Rebellion brought central London to a standstill in April, where the police made 570 arrests in one week alone. Climate change activist Greta Thunberg has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 16. And in 2017, Blue Planet became a global talking point after a particularly intense episode showed the brutal reality of plastic waste in the oceans; now, thanks to campaigning, plastic or single use straws are being banned by some of the biggest brands on the planet.

But it took us a while to get here. “There was real worry about doing an environmental series,” admits Fothergill. 2011’s Frozen Planet had a whole episode about climate change, but six months after it aired on the BBC, the Discovery Channel in the US refused to air the episode in question. They eventually relented, and uploaded it online, after a mass outcry from fans.

“One of the many good things about being on Netflix is that the audience skews very young,” Fothergill says. “In the UK and across Europe, that 16-30 bracket doesn’t watch broadcast TV. But they do watch Netflix. I see climate change protests taking to the streets and they’re very young, very engaged.”

It’s important that people can see the destruction and the domino effect that subtle changes to the planet can have across the world. Climate change is difficult to ‘show’ on camera, but Fothergill explains that one of the most impactful ways is to show a process called glacial calving, where huge chunks of ice break off from glaciers and fall into the water.

“This last year the Store Glacier in Greenland is the fastest calving glacier here on our planet,” he says. “It’s 100 metres tall, it has 400 metres of ice beneath. It’s moving forward 45 metres a day and it’s calving twice as fast as it did 10 years ago. And we were very determined to try and film the spectacle as it never been done before, from all these angles to really give the drama.”

He shows me footage from the show to demonstrate the work involved. The glaciers are falling apart so frequently that the cinematic sequence of events, which looks like something out of a disaster movie, was filmed in just an hour. “Crazy,” he says quietly.

Svalbard was originally an Arctic coal mining post, and is the world’s northernmost town, with only a couple of military and research posts being closer to the North Pole. It gets over 135,000 visitors a year, and is slowly garnering buzz as a tourist destination, though many of the locals seem wary of the rise of luxury hotels and other amenities.

I have to wonder if that worries Fothergill, that a rustic place on the edge of the world suddenly turning into a must-visit destination might only accelerate the thing he’s trying to educate people about. Even some of the show’s work, like the sweeping shots of glaciers or humpback whales, filmed via helicopter, worry me slightly. Isn’t that bad? In fact, am I bad by flying all this way here just to speak to him?

“All transport, that’s aeroplanes and cars, all of it, accounts for only 15 percent of global warming,” he tells me. “It’s the one that everybody talks about but, actually, it’s one you can do something about really quite easily. It’s not too difficult to make planes and cars much more efficient.”

He’s more concerned about buildings, which he says are a huge source of CO2 emissions; the construction of them, the lighting of them, the heating of them is all bad for the environment. “And agriculture. That’s a big one, because the cows break wind a lot. And feeding them, you have to grow an awful lot of grain. But certainly we believe the footprint that we are creating [during filming] is justified by the message we are sending.”

Gentoo penguins diving down for krill in the Antarctic Peninsula. Once they find a patch of krill, they journey repeatedly to and from the surface, going up to 200m below, until the krill patch disperses

We have already seen the benefits to global law changes. “There was a global decision to stop commercial whaling, and as a result, whales have recovered. The message is: we can do it, if we want to.

“Just look at the ozone hole, if we hadn’t dealt with that, the repercussions would have been catastrophic. We would have all got skin cancer. But we were lucky, in some ways that the gasses that were causing the hole in the ozone layer were not that important. It was coming from the gases in your fridge, places like that, and it was very easy, commercially speaking, to overcome that.

our meeting with the polar bear took place a day after our original excursion, which was cancelled due to poor visibility. We left Longyearbyen on our skidoo and sped – I’m using the term generously – out the town and across a long stretch where a man going in the opposite direction was pulled along by 12 huskies.

We visited some of the old outposts and saw the huge wooden pylons and cableways that transported the coal down to the ground. After a round of hot cocoa by the edge of Longyearbyen, where we looked out across the sea and gasped at the shock of navy-blue water against the relentless rice-coloured world around us, we made our way back. What had felt like a long trek had actually been more of an intricate slalom around the area just outside town. Kieran, one of our guides, explained that people often get completely lost in a snowstorm and call for help, only for the storm to subside and for them to realise they were metres away from a main road. It is so disorentating I understood why the show Fortitude was filmed here.

I also understood why Svalbard is the home of the Global Seed Vault; a huge library set up in 2008 where scientists have stored the world’s most important crops so they can be reproduced in the event of a global disaster. Who else would understand the urgency but here, a scattering of islands in the most remote part of the world? Watching Our Planet might have made me lose faith in humanity, I thought, as I arrived at the airport, passing reams of descending tourists. But Svalbard helped restore it.

Our Planet is now streaming on Netflix