Eek. I know nature is red in tooth and claw, and I know nature documentaries are as much about death as they are about life, but this particular scene really upset me on Frozen Planet last night. What a hypocrite I am for printing this still. Having whined about the news media showing us Colonel Gaddafi’s final moments last week, BBC1 showed me the final moments of a Weddell seal, ingeniously rounded up by a pod of killer whales in the Antarctic, who broke up the ice floe it was basking on from beneath, then, in a coordinated attack, made waves to wash it off with pinpoint accuracy into the icy water. And I’m showing it to you. (Although out of context, it’s nothing like as sad.)
As with all dramatic vignettes captured, or created, for nature documentaries (the ultimate in “scripted reality”), this one was cleverly personalised – one seal versus about eight whales – and narrated, by the nation’s favourite, ancient, immortal David Attenborough, to accentuate the narrative, which was then underscored by accompanying music. We were led to believe that the seal was doomed, and then safe, and then doomed again, and then safe, until, exhausted and outnumbered by the chase, the poor animal seemed to submit to its fate and allow a whale to pull it down by its tail. It’s all in those eyes.
I’m an inveterate animal lover, as you well know. I am the kind of person who would give my last pound to a donkey sanctuary over a children’s home. I’m soppy as hell, and more likely to cry at the TV, or in the cinema, if a pet dies than if a man or lady dies. (Fuck me, the fictional character Oregon’s fictional horse, Roulette, had me blubbing on Fresh Meat last night, its acting almost as affecting as Jack Whitehall’s. If you didn’t see it, I won’t bother contextualising it, or indeed spoiling it. Just watch it will you?) But I accept that the natural world is a finely balance ecosystem based on one species eating another, and that species eating something smaller, and so on. I am a part of that ecosystem, and I don’t even have the nobility to catch and kill my own prey. It’s always tough to see death on the television, even in the broadest zoological, ecological and geophysical context.
The Antarctic, and the Arctic, may be in long-term, man-made trouble – something Attenborough’s series will not shy away from, you can be certain of that – but the Weddell seal is not endangered. It’s doing fine. Killer whales eat to live. They kill to eat (the clue’s in the name, although all carnivores should have killer before their name, strictly speaking). Earlier in the same edition of Frozen Planet, some wily Canadian wolves ate a young bison to live. Like the whales, they picked their prey off from the herd and brought it down. It is truly amazing to see animals do things like this, in the wild. It’s their gig.
When I interviewed Paul McCartney in 1997, as I am over-fond of relating, I spoke to him about his vegetarianism, which I admired. As a man who has lived in rural surrounds, he backed up his personal decision to not eat animals by conceding that other creatures ate other creatures. When, he said, a hawk swoops down to eat a bird, he doesn’t complain, adding. “It’s his gig.” I’ve always loved that attitude.
As long as the humans aren’t actually intervening and manipulating the drama as it unfolds, I don’t mind if they help dramatise it in the edit, and even though I have now watched a Weddell seal’s final moments in HD, you might say that it adds to my greater understanding of – and empathy for – the natural world, one for which I already have a hell of a lot of respect. It’s better, in many ways, to see a beautiful male polar bear covered in the blood and scratches and bite marks that are a part of his life cycle, as we did last night, than cling to a Fox’s Glacier Mint fantasy.
Rest in peace, Mr Weddell. You did no die in vain. As for the killer whales who still haunt my dreams, especially since shamefully and self-gratifyingly paying to see one in a swimming pool in Vallejo, California, in 1994, it’s their gig.