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‘Planet Earth III’ Is a Poignant Reminder of What We’re Fighting For

It’s back. It’s better than ever. And it’s going to break your heart.

An ostrich.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

David Attenborough is not mad, he’s just disappointed.

At 97 years old, the narrator of the Planet Earth series returns to guide us through the nature docuseries’ third installment, which becomes available for U.S. audiences this weekend. Maybe I’d just forgotten how harrowing stories of animal survival can be in the seven years since the release of Planet Earth II, but other reviewers seem to agree: Planet Earth III has an especially melancholic edge.

You can hear it in Attenborough’s narration: “Since Darwin’s time, [Earth] has changed beyond recognition, transformed by a powerful force,” he says in the show’s intro. “Us.”

Do not let that darker tone deter you from watching, though; just take it as a precaution to have a box of tissues handy. Having watched the first two episodes that were made available to the press, I can confirm that Planet Earth III is as breathtaking a viewing experience as the original Planet Earth was when it came out 17 years ago — and maybe, if I dare say, more so.

Sharks vs Seals | Planet Earth III | BBC

The first episode, “Coasts,” includes incredibly crisp aerial and underwater footage of sharks ganging up to hunt seals — an instant classic that I watched through my fingers and that belongs alongside the famous iguana vs. snakes scene from Planet Earth II. Ever innovative, the cinematographers also used night-vision cameras to capture lionesses hunting ducks, and somehow managed to track tiny (and alarmingly misnamed) sea angels hunting off the coast of Greenland.

The second episode, though, might be even more astounding. In “Ocean,” a horror story unfolds in a kelp forest off the Pacific Northwest that I narrated with gasps of “oh GOD” and “go go go gogogogogo!” Another segment centers on one of the strangest and most endearing stories of symbiotic “animal friendship” that I’ve ever seen. The episode might also include the smallest animals to ever be featured in an episode of Planet Earth — phytoplankton and zooplankton — and certainly the largest, a 150-foot-long deep-sea siphonophore.

But Attenborough stresses to viewers that “at this crucial time in our history, we must look at the Earth through a new lens.” That lens ultimately turns Planet Earth’s obsessive attention back on us.

In the first episode’s “behind the scenes” segment (which all Planet Earth diehards know not to skip), Attenborough explains why crewmembers decided to step in to save stranded sea turtles, breaking the “no interference” code of nature documentarians. It isn’t some feel-good story: Because of human-caused climate change, the sea is rising over the island where the turtles lay their eggs and researchers might only have 30 or so more years of rescuing turtles before the tiny sandbar is uninhabitable, making any intervention seem agonizingly futile. Similarly, the “Ocean” episode includes a gutting segment about the sea lion bycatch that occurs during commercial fishing. Though the accompanying “behind the scenes” footage also reveals compassionate human intervention, the act involved is so singular and the footage so excruciating that it’s little comfort.

You can’t look away, though. Of what I’ve seen so far, Planet Earth III is making a strong run at being the most staggering installment of the docuseries so far. Shot over five years and in 43 different countries, the season’s remaining six episodes will reportedly feature both familiar landscapes and new friends: “Deserts & Grasslands,” “Freshwater,” “Forests,” “Extremes,” and “Human,” come next, culminating, intriguingly, with an eighth and final episode titled “Heroes.”

Each, I expect, will be another astonishing reminder of what so many of us are fighting for — and of all there is to save.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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