The Current

After complaints from parents, Our Planet director defends footage of walruses plummeting to their death

Netflix nature documentary Our Planet has provoked an angry response from people caught off-guard by a graphic scene of walruses falling from a cliff to their deaths. But the program's makers say the scene has an important message about climate change.

Warning: Some readers may find details of this story disturbing

A walrus is seen falling off a cliff in the trailer for Netflix's nature series Our Planet. (Netflix/YouTube)
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A Netflix nature documentary that shows walruses plunging from a cliff to their deaths has provoked condemnation from some parents, who were caught unaware as they watched with their children.

Janice Duddy told The Current that it took an hour for her eight-year-old son Toby to calm down after he watched the scene.

"He was sitting on the floor fairly close to the TV and he just crumpled into a heap and started sobbing," said Duddy, of White Rock, B.C. She posted a warning to her friends on social media about watching the scene with young children.

"He couldn't articulate what was wrong, but he was so very upset," she said.

"He was just irrationally sobbing, it hit something in him."

The scene is part of the new Netflix documentary series, Our Planet, voiced by British broadcaster David Attenborough. The footage, shot in Russia in 2017, shows walruses clustered on the edge of a steep, rocky cliff. The episode suggests that the walruses are crowded on the 80-metre high cliffs because receding sea ice has left them fewer places to rest.

Warning: Viewers may find this footage disturbing.

The camera does not pull away as the walruses, jostling for space on the crowded cliff, slip and fall, plummeting to their deaths as they crash onto the rocks below.

In response to complaints, Netflix issued a warning with the timecodes of scenes that viewers may find distressing. The scenes flagged include a flamingo chick's legs solidified in salt deposits, a penguin being eaten by killer whales, and fish caught in fishing nets.

The footage "was exceptionally harrowing, one of the hardest things I've ever had to film," said Sophie Lanfear, who produced and directed the episode of Our Planet.

"We thought long and hard about this sequence and what to show, and whether to show it," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

She argued however that it was important to include the footage, in order to highlight the role that climate change is having on the natural world.

Walruses resting on an ice floe in the Eastern Chukchi Sea in 2012. (U.S. Geological Survey/AP)

She explained that walruses normally swim out to sea to feed, where they periodically rest on sea ice. But receding ice means the walruses have nowhere to rest, and must swim back to land between feeding sessions. That leaves them huddled on land in greater numbers — in what are called haul-out sites — and too exhausted to move beyond the pack to a safer resting place.

"We felt that this sequence kind of sums up … the effect loss of sea ice can have on some animals. We just felt it was a very important thing to document."

Duddy, Toby's mother, said that while she appreciates the intention of the filmmakers to show a difficult truth, she thinks the way the scene was shot meant the message "was lost" on her son.

"It's actually made him really fearful of other nature shows. He's said to us he's not sure he wants to watch anymore in this series."

Some scientists have questioned the program's correlation between climate change and the walruses falling, arguing that walruses were falling off cliffs before sea ice started receding.

Lanfear said "the difference is the frequency with which this is happening now."

To know something like that was going on ... and to not show it, for me would be a complete disservice to everything I stand for.- Sophie Lanfear

The haul-out site they filmed had not been used by walruses in about 80 years before 2006, but those once-in-80-year events are "now happening every single year."

"We counted 750 bodies on that beach," she said.

"You're getting those casualties every year which will impact the population over the long term."

Ultimately, she thinks "it's an important message" to include.

"To know something like that was going on in Russia, and to not show it, for me would be a complete disservice to everything I stand for."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann, Julianne Hazlewood and Cinar Kiper.

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