We’ve been watching some episodes of Blue Planet here, marveling at the beautiful cinematography, as well as at how emotionally gripping they can be.
Especially in the Frozen Seas episode, I found myself feeling almost wrung out by the dramatic roller-coaster. This is definitely nature red in tooth and claw (and blood-soaked maw), although as my better half points out, there’s actually rather less on-camera carnage than you might expect from the narration.*
I think part of the dramatic tension comes from the fact that most of the animals featured in this episode are fairly charismatic mid-sized to full-sized mammals. My better half opines that it’s hard for humans watching nature programs not to root for their fellow mammals, especially when it’s a matter of whether they will survive in harsh conditions. (There are also penguins, which are sufficiently charismatic that they’re practically honorary mammals.) We also get scenes in which these charismatic critters are shown with their young — cute!
Of course, part of what these critters do is try to protect their young from predation. The other part of what they do is try to protect their young from starvation by teaching them how to hunt.
So, you’re rooting for the wee polar bear cub, learning to hunt (belugas, at holes in the ice) from her mom. But at the same time, you’re rooting for the beluga trying to find a safe moment to come up through a hole in the ice to take a breath without getting munched by the polar bears. You’re rooting for the beautifully sleek leopard seal to get a good meal, but you’re also hoping that the penguin who might become that meal won’t slip off the ice and into the leopard seal’s clutches (because the penguin’s partner is there all alone on land with the wee kiddo penguin, waiting for his or her chance to go out and find a meal, and if his or her partner doesn’t come back, who’s going to help keep the wee kiddo penguin safe?).
And watching all this, you don’t even have the psychological advantage of knowing which critter is going to win, so no matter which animal you identify with emotionally, there’s a good chance you’ll end up sad. How could it be otherwise? If one of these critters were much more likely to win the eat-or-be-eaten struggle, its prey wouldn’t be able to survive in these conditions … and then what would the winning critter (and its cute offspring) eat? That adapting to the niche puts these various sorts of critters pretty much on a par with each other in the evolutionary arms race means that for each particular encounter, it’s anyone’s game!
Well played, nature.
*I wonder, actually, whether the nature program carnage I remember from my youth is at all related to the fact that the big sponsors of these programs were insurance companies. Was there a conscious effort to convince us it was a dangerous world out there so we’d buy insurance (in case we got gobbled by cheetahs, leaving behind a little of wee young wildebeests who’d need food and protection and schooling)?